Summary (TLDR Version)

When interpretation runs afoul of imagery or actuality.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

This means you might disagree with me, especially where I have it wrong.

A Reply To: Jim Woodring’s (2011)[2] Congress of the Animals [Part 3]

This continues my replies to Woodring’s book from a while back (see here and here). There, I suggested that the crib-notes (on the dust jacket of the book) that interpret the imagery Woodring supplies int eh book might not tell us the “correct” interpretation as reliably as seems. This looks specifically at this disjunction between what images “say” and “authoritative commentary” commentary about them.

Visual Art as Moral

Part of me wants to dig into all of the imagery in Woodring’s book; part of me frets that I’ve not described it in enough detail (in previous posts) so that unfamiliar readers can make use of what I’d say; part of me keeps hearing those who would say, “Jesus Christ, going on and on and on about a Frank cartoon.”[3]

I can answer the last point most easily: the crib-notes of the book itself already suggest one should read Woodring’s book as intending much more than a cartoon. So if you only read Congress of the Animals for the weird images and the emotional rush of this or that it fosters, then you have likely failed Woodring’s intention. Enjoy your life.

Meanwhile, because a picture says a thousand words, trying to control the meaning of those thousand words becomes a major challenge for artists. Vaughn-James obviously did not trust his images to say what he wanted and added a great deal of (often unfortunate) text. Woodring resorts to crib-notes—a wilier and less intrusive method but perhaps not always adequate.

Linking together the crib-notes and back text linked to imagery, as I did in the previous section, a large interpretative weight seems to swing in the usual earth/sex/down = bad and sky/love/up = good kind of discourse, symbolism, and imagery. The agency that makes one feel at home in the earth hinders the progress forward/upward to that soul-warmth expressed as a sky full of wonders (and romantic cohabitation); the vagina, “something too attractive to resist and too exalted to possess” must first undergo transformation or else, at best, it amounts to “a brief side trip down the endless corridor of that insanity that seems like grace”. Taken simply in these terms, this reiterates that banal trope: sex = bad, love = good, and perhaps that explains how such a promisingly weird book could come to such a banal and conventional end; because underneath all of the visual pyrotechnics, little else beyond the most banal of old hats lurks, mouldy.

Sad.

Usually, when one critiques worshippers of the gut, this amounts to railing against vulgar materialism, that kind whereby someone lives only by appetite, never seeing any of the higher things in life. By accident or not (and whether Woodring still intends a criticism, if different), he undermines this typical critique by making the vision of the “gut” have cosmic breadth. If the “brief side trip down the endless corridor of that insanity that seems like grace” amounts to or intends to point to the “fireworks” of orgasm—or, to put the point more decorously, sexual love—then it seems a misstep of metaphors on Woodring’s part to allow a sense of “peyote ritual” into his thematics.

I mean, if we (or Woodring) insists on reading the encounter with the gut-worshippers in a sexual sense—I haven’t included all of the readily available details one might further point to—that reading would still have to contend with the specifically transmutating “head” trip involved. This does not boil down to a “little” head trip, even when the gut-worshippers pull out part of Frank’s intestine and examine the head of it. Phallus as intestine suggesting sex = shit makes a simple enough equation, but even here Frank himself gets found wanting. If Frank (and Woodring) equate sex and shit (just to stick to that locution), it seems the gut-worshippers do not. And whatever they have wrong, still from the base of the statue that has a gut-worshipper’s face, Frank finds his crappy “transcendent love”.

When it comes to sex and love, patriarchy often loses its mind and its way. The saint/whore dichotomy of women (“too attractive to resist and too exalted to possess”) makes the whole thing too often in a fatuous desire to elevate the desire to fuck into something no longer even bodily and thus holy: “soul-warmth expressed as a sky full of wonders for the delectation of our animals”.

From the waist up, the gut-worshippers all seem men; what genitals they possess challenge categorisation. As such, I suspect they have a more interesting story to tell than the one Woodring did. Or that, as a temporary anthropologist amongst them (in his imagination), Woodring may have misread their traditions in light of his own saint/whore, mind/body duality. I suspect I’d find more stories about them, not filtered through that lens, telling

One reading of Oedipus in his confrontation with the sphinx and her riddle says his hubris rests in believing he got the answer right. In other words, had he remained blocked by the sphinx, he would have escaped his destruction. Frank, too, “answered the riddle” and received the tragedy of a happy ending resting on a deluded notion of love, as it were. Had he gone over into the heady depths instead or shown more fortitude (of spirit) with the gut-worshippers, he might have avoided that tragedy as well.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Woodring, J. (2011). The congress of animals, Seattle, WA: Fantagraphic Books, pp. 1–100.

[3] Obviously, better that one should go on wondering what this book intends than Gaiman’s vacuous Signal to Noise.

LIGHTS UP

AT RISE: the ANTI-DOULA sits at a table with the DOULA, who stirs a pot of food. The CHORUS circles around throughout.

CHORUS: (like a cell phone) breep-breep-breep!

The ANTI-DOULA looks at his cell phone in disgust, then gets up to leave.

From here on out, gestures by the CHORUS are exaggeratedly pantomimed (silent).

DOULA: You’re going?

ANTI-DOULA: Mom needs me to take CARE of her.

CHORUS: (surrounding the ANTI-DOULA in a hug) Awwwwwwwwwww.

DOULA: Now?

ANTI-DOULA: I don’t CARE to discuss this right now.

CHORUS: (arms extended, in a “keep it away from”/”none of my business” me gesture) Nawwwwwwwwwww.

DOULA: Should I wait dinner for us then?

ANTI-DOULA: I don’t CARE what you–

CHORUS: (arms up, like being arrested, in the “vast shrug of apathy” gesture) Bawwwwwwwwwwwww.

DOULA: Hey! Just cuz you’re pissed, don’t take it out–

ANTI-DOULA: (crossing back to the DOULA) No, you’re right. I’m sorry.

They kiss, pause, then both look at the audience.

CHORUS: (tongues hanging out, exaggeratedly grossed out, but fascinated at the same time) Gawwwwwwwwwwwww!

ANTI-DOULA (CON’T)

Do you suppose they CARE that we’re–

DOULA: You mean about–

ANTI-DOULA: Or about my mother’s chronic scleroderma?

CHORUS: (making a false showing of obligatory sentiment) Mawwwwwwwwwwwwww!

DOULA: That’s redundant. Scleroderma’s always chronic.

ANTI-DOULA: Who cares?

CHORUS: (arms up, like being arrested, in the “vast shrug of apathy” gesture) Bawwwwwwwwwwwww.

DOULA: Sorry. I just meant–

The DOULA and ANTI-DOULA look back to one another, just a quick kiss this time.

DOULA (CON’T)

(sighing) Take CARE.

CHORUS: (mocking the sentimentality of the statement) Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaw!

ANTI-DOULA: (grumbling, leaving) More like “GIVE care”.

CHORUS: (made jolly by the pun or wit) Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaw!

DOULA: (calling after, like a “yoo-hoo”) Decide to temporarily enter into her structure.

CHORUS: (at a total loss) Whaaaaaaaa?

ANTI-DOULA: What?

DOULA: Decide to temporarily enter into her structure.

ANTI-DOULA: What?

DOULA: That’s what care is: to decide to temporarily enter into the structure of another living system.

ANTI-DOULA: (still puzzled, exiting) You don’t say.

DOULA: Drive carefully.

The DOULA looks to the CHORUS for a reaction, but they’re still helplessly confused. They shrug.

LIGHTS DOWN

Summary (TLDR Version)

Misreading this book incorrectly shows us the tragedy involved in that most banal happy ending.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

This means you might disagree with me, especially where I have it wrong.

A Reply To: Jim Woodring’s (2011)[2] Congress of the Animals [Part 2]

This continues my reply to Woodring’s book from a while back (see here). There, I suggested that the crib-notes (on the dust jacket of the book) that interpret the imagery Woodring supplies int eh book might not tell us the “correct” interpretation as reliably as seems. This specifically looks at a sequence in the book, and the description the crib-notes give of it, to tease out the disjunction between image and “authoritative commentary”.

The Gutworshippers

Meanwhile, with the foregoing to help frame delving further into Woodring’s book, let us turn to Frank’s encounter with the gut-worshippers.

The crib-notes say, “Clutched, [Frank] flees and is driven to perceive himself in the form of a distant building. He determines that he must go there.” A series of blocks then occurs to prevent Frank from reaching the building, the first of which involves gut-worshippers. The crib-notes tell us, “No, say the blind gut-worshippers, showing their wares and examining his.” Again, while this verbal description of the sequence, one of the longer one (11–12 pages, or more than 30 frames), gets at the gist of what happens, that these creatures “worship” the gut does not come across.

To (attempt to describe) the actual visual sequence, Frank climbs through a sphere-filled opening in a sphere and discovers inside the realm of the blind gut-worshippers. A half-bust of a statue with its intestines spilling out makes him over his eyes, but as he laughs at yet another statue, he starts violently when the gut-worshippers approach him. These figures lack faces, having only misshapen holes—reminiscent of the bread-slice-face shape of obstinate dubiousness personified.[3] Inside the voids of their faces and heads, the gut-worshippers have a ball-like organ that can rise and fall, reminiscent of a tongue. The sight makes Frank queasy and ill at ease. One gut-worshipper then gets Frank’s attention, but when the creature pulls open his entire belly and torso to display his guts, Frank faints. Propping Frank up, yet another shows him a hallucinogenic device that partially transforms Frank into something like a gut-worshipper—which includes one shape reminiscent of the “sparkling female comforter” in the centre of the page—and then, with a wide (drugged) grin on his face, the gut-worshippers pull part of his intestine from his belly and examine it, a particular gland-like part of it. However, they find Frank’s gut hopelessly wanting and abandon him. He pokes his intestine back in, once he recovers, and then goes on to his next adventure.

Calling these figures gut-worshippers offers another of those significant additions to the text. While a reader almost certainly grasps that the hallucinogenic device presented to Frank causes his trip into a cosmic intestinal realm, the element of “worship” makes the hallucinogenic device more akin to peyote. Regardless, it seems clear enough that Frank does not make the grade in the eyes (or lack of them) of the gut-worshippers—they reject him with various expressions of disgust or disappointment—but the specifically religious or ritual aspect of this seems less likely to get picked up.

In the next sequence, Frank has to bisect an intestinal creature, which the crib-notes call a “dragon,” in order to gain access to the next interior zone. There he meets a helpful guide, who seems decidedly not intestinal (more like sticks with a disc on top, rather than snaky and tube-and-eyes), so one may read a sort of “transcendence” or “going beyond the gut” in what follows. In other words, one must overcome the gut to move forward in the quest.

This kind of theme has plenty of precedents—one must overcome the grossly material in order to achieve the sublimely non-material, &c—but I want to stick with digging into the tension between the crib-notes and the visual events depicted. The phrase “gut-worshipper” (which one would almost certainly not arrive at in the visual depiction) has two different rings to it. In a negative sense, a gut-worshipper embodies someone who sees nothing higher than mere materiality, a belly-thinker only. In a less negative sense—and particularly because this gut-worship comes with a hallucinogen-induced cosmic vision—the visual depiction suggests something more like an authentic “religion” of the gut.

My gut tells me—pun intended—that the writer of the crib-notes means “gut-worshipper” in a negative sense, and if I had to defend that assertion, I would point precisely to the fact that Frank has to kill (overcome) a gut-dragon in order to get into the next, less gut-filled, region to continue his quest. In that sequence, a series of cartoonish creatures (none of them particularly intestinal) pull on ropes going down into a hole in order to drag up something from the depths, and though they succeed, then all (except Frank) wind up getting pulled into that hole; hence the crib-notes summarise this, “No, say those who desire to be pulled into the heady depths.” Importantly, Woodring draws the thing they pull up from the depths as a strange staring-mouthed and multi-eyed head thing with a solar crown on top, i.e., a multi-faced head. It remains an open question whether those who get pulled into the “heady” depths (pun alert!) have themselves transformed into or will become a part of this head, but it remains clear that the cartoons have foolishly called up something they cannot handle (or enthusiastically don’t want to) and get pulled to their “destruction”. Meanwhile, any sharp distinction here between “depths” (gut) and “head” seems to break down.

So, in terms of reaching the image of himself, Frank proves no good to the gut-worshippers themselves and fails as one of those “who desire to be pulled into the heady depths”. These two sequences taken together contrast (undesirable) “gut” and either (more desirable) “head” or simply the transcendence of both, since Frank must go beyond both of these blocks, these “no”s: “No, say the blind gut-worshippers, showing their wares and examining his. No, say the dragons, tied to each other and fighting like hot wet wildcats. No, say those who desire to be pulled into the heady depths.”

I propose that the crib-notes then impose an overly conventional body/spirit dichotomy in what Woodring depicts; i.e., the crib-notes pose the gut-worshippers and those who would be pulled into the heady depths (and the dragon of course) as obstacles Frank must overcome in order to move forward (and achieve the very banal outcome of a Congress of Animals—pun intended). Nonetheless, the visuals of the sequence at best only ambiguously support this. Meanwhile, the crib-notes also contradict themselves. After his brush with the sparkling female comforter blocked by obstinate dubiousness personified, Frank “is driven to perceive himself in the form of a distant building.” However, on the back of the book, a text describes that building as “a reminder that architecture which resembles one is always meant for another.” Probably not insignificantly, this building has a face like a gut-worshipper but nonetheless does have the door Frank knocks on to obtain the banal love-interest.

I don’t feel a need to sort out the imagery into some tidy narrative; hopefully, the tensions and contradictions add, rather than subtract, from the book. Prior to the gut-worshippers, a face on a stalk, that could well serve for a removed gut-worshipper face, prevents (blocks) Frank from reaching the sparkling female comforter, described on the back of the book as “a glimpse of something too attractive to resist and too exalted to possess”. During his cosmic trip with the gut-worshippers, something similarly shaped resides at the (literal) centre of his trip as he at least partially transforms, face-wise, into a gut-worshipper. He then flies with his intestines hanging out and twice encounters variations of the face-on-stalk figure, before he enters the cosmic realm itself and experience that “brief side trip down the endless corridor of that insanity that seems like grace”. And, finally, with those who would plunge into the heady depths, the multi-faced figure on a thick stalk that appears, Woodring (or the back of the book) describes as that “agency which makes one feel at home in the earth.” At the very end, once together with his love-interest, an object appears in the sky that resembles somewhat the sparkling female comforter, here described as “soul-warmth expressed as a sky full of wonders for the delectation of our animals”.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Woodring, J. (2011). The congress of animals, Seattle, WA: Fantagraphic Books, pp. 1–100.

[3] More exactly, on the back of obstinate dubiousness’ disembodied face, Woodring includes plus-sign-like shapes. It seems as if he includes similar signs at the back of the gut-worshipper’s empty hole-faces.

A COURTROOM, with a DOCTOR (prosecutor), JUDGE (hospital administrator), BAILIFF (orderly), and CRIMINAL (patient).

AT RISE: the DOCTOR gestures in a hostile way toward the PATIENT, in the middle of a tirade.

DOCTOR: Is this not a 35 year old obese woman presenting with the symptoms not only of elevated hormone levels and increased enzymatic liver complexes but also considerable metastatic tissue–

MIDWIFE: (jumping up) Objection! The doctor is–

JUDGE: Sustained. (to the DOCTOR) Ask the question differently, Prosecutor.

DOCTOR: (to the PATIENT) Do you deny that you acquired cancer?

PATIENT: …

DOCTOR: Well?

MIDWIFE: Objection! The patient is clearly not well.

JUDGE: Overruled. The question was rhetorical, Midwife. (to the DOCTOR) Continue.

DOCTOR: (to the PATIENT) Well? Have you or have you not acquired cancer?

PATIENT: …

DOCTOR: (triumphantly) Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this Court will note that the patient is plainly–

MIDWIFE: Objection! He’s–

DOCTOR: (smugly, to the JUDGE) I have no more questions, your honour. (to the MIDWIFE) Your witness.

Kindly, the MIDWIFE gets close to the PATIENT.

MIDWIFE: (to the PATIENT, kindly) What do you think of this process?

DOCTOR: Objection. Calls for speculation.

MIDWIFE: Your honour, this line of questioning is necessary to establish the patient’s state of mind at the time when–

JUDGE: I’ll allow it. But proceed carefully, Midwife.

MIDWIFE: My esteemed colleague, Doctor Manhattan here, has accused you of obtaining a life-threatening disease by unlawful means. We are here to examine your guilt in that–

DOCTOR: Objection! Is the defence questioning the patient or grandstanding?

JUDGE: Do you have a question in there somewhere, Midwife?

MIDWIFE: (to the PATIENT) What do you think of this process?

PATIENT: …

MIDWIFE: Well?

PATIENT: …

MIDWIFE: (to the JUDGE) Permission to treat the witness as hostile.

DOCTOR: Objection. It’s his witness.

JUDGE: I don’t need you to tell me how to interpret the law, Doctor. (to the MIDWIFE) Proceed as you wish, Midwife.

MIDWIFE: (to the PATIENT, who remains silent after each question) Isn’t it true that many people live in the area where you acquired cancer? … And that many, most in fact, did not become afflicted as you have? … (palpates the PATIENT)

DOCTOR: Objection. He’s manipulating the witness.

MIDWIFE: Palpating, your honour, palpating. A perfectly normal legal procedure.

JUDGE: (to the DOCTOR) Overruled.

DOCTOR: But he’s untrained, unqualified, I mean.

JUDGE: (sharply) I’m allowing it. (to the MIDWIFE) But get on with it, Midwife. This Court generously suffers your presence. Don’t waste our time.

MIDWIFE: (to the PATIENT) How can you claim to be innocent before this court, when you became sick but others didn’t? … Whose fault is that? … Well? … Who bears the guilt for that? … You’re a sick person. And my esteemed colleague over there makes a living off people like you.

DOCTOR: Objection! Slander.

MIDWIFE: The best defence against slander is the truth.

JUDGE: That’s true. (to the DOCTOR) Overruled.

MIDWIFE: (to the PATIENT) It’s criminal that you impose on society this way. What do you have to say for yourself?

PATIENT: …

MIDWIFE: (sarcastically) Oh, so it’s society that made you sick, eh?

PATIENT: …

MIDWIFE: We should put the doctor on trial? (indicating the JUDGE) And the hospitals and administrators? You had no say in this disaster whatsoever?

PATIENT: …

MIDWIFE: Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I apologize in advance for courtroom dramatics, but if I might ask the patient to stand.

JUDGE: Where are you going with this?

MIDWIFE: It bears on the case, your honour.

JUDGE: (to the DOCTOR) You have no objections? (the DOCTOR shakes his head) My hands are tied then. I have no choice then but to allow it. (to the PATIENT) The orderly will order the patient stand.

The PATIENT does. She’s obviously pregnant.

MIDWIFE: I ask the Court to note. It’s not cancer. She’s pregnant.

DOCTOR: (jumping up) What the blazes? This is–

JUDGE: Order! Order! I prescribe order!

MIDWIFE: There’s been a misdiagnosis.

DOCTOR: This should have come out in discovery.

MIDWIFE: More like, before then.

JUDGE: You’ve been having us on this whole time, Midwife.

MIDWIFE: And I apologise, your honour. But my office has an only limited capacity to act in these matters. All the same, we move for summary dismissal of all charges. This woman is no criminal.

JUDGE: (to the DOCTOR) Cross?

DOCTOR: Yes, very.

JUDGE: Cross-examine. Do you wish to?

DOCTOR: Rather, I’d like the court to note that my diagnosis—

MIDWIFE: Objection!

JUDGE: Sustained. (banging his gavel) This case is dismissed.

BLACK OUT.

Summary (TLDR Version)

In a well-managed world, we’d need no heroics.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

This means you might disagree with me, especially where I have it wrong.

A Reply To: Al Davison’s (2003)[2] The Spiral Cage

This graphic autobiography tells the story of a now-Buddhist, martial artist who overcame (along with the support of his family and more than a dozen operations) spina bifida.

Three things particularly stand out for me[3] in this book (the bullying, the forefronting of Davison’s lived condition, and the episode with Mary), but I should say something first about the drawing style. I think Davison may have compiled this book from various journals and bits and pieces while, at times, also providing connective tissue to make the narrative hang together. As a work from many moments, and thus many moods, it covers a wide range of styles: sometimes photorealistic, sometimes more cartoony, &c. But most of the time, Davison stuffs the page with frames. It gives an often wearing, slow pace to the book, which seems appropriate in an autobiography where the protagonist child had to pull himself slowly across the floor on a pillow. Also, as someone often overlooked as “a cripple,” each moment of offered speaking can become so cramped with desire to speak that too much comes out—or, more precisely, more than the listener anticipated or feels willing, able, or prepared to deal with. I don’t think Davison intended this but it does a lovely job of supporting the at times dramatized parts of the autobiography where Davison’s isolation (or the unwillingness of others to take him seriously as a human being) come to the fore.

One thing that really stands out in this book (set in England): bully “cripples” (including physical assault) really seems a thing over there. Of course, Davison has selected episodes from his life to depict—though clearly, if simply to go outside carried a threat of violence (even death), that will obviously figure heavily in one’s experience of life. The scenes, however, have a curious quality, in that they do not operate conventionally as sympathy generators. In his younger years, the images of bullying may call forth in a reader a conventional “oh, that’s awful,” but later on, Davison’s use of self-defence turns the tide on his would-be attackers, and the scenes function more as (rather macho) “don’t fuck with me” gestures.

At the end of the book, Davison includes a little piece about his capacity for (and perhaps prowess at) sex. Within the book itself, Davison confronts a citizen by showing himself more able physically than the citizen. These gestures, if not the book at large (at least in part), all amount to warnings or challenges to “don’t think I can’t”. One can understand an impulse behind that—having heard too often from the world, “you can’t”—and it also presupposes that prejudice in the reader. In other words, I don’t recall anyone in the book who approaches the “disability” from an “I’m sorry, but I don’t know what this condition does and does not enable or disable” as opposed to “I will assume without evidence that you cannot”. One of the more ghastly frames, for instance, includes a very self-satisfied English woman, speaking to Davison’s mother (who lost 60 pounds carrying him around at one point, because he could not walk), declaring it would have been kinder to not let him live. By contrast, Davison’s now life-partner specifically declares that she finds his “misshapen” body and surgical scars attractive. If others find “his condition” revolting, she finds it attractive—really, the same kind of emphasis, but with a positive spin. It would seem Davison himself occupies a similar headspace.

I hardly mean this as a surprise or a criticism—he did, after all, not only live with this reality in the world around him (full of judging people), but also in the loving (almost saintly) atmosphere of his family, where “his condition” obviously had an enormous presence. What I like about this resembles that critique of “colour-blindness” that currently infects the dominating discourse, i.e., that (political) desire to strip people of all specificity (ethnicity, gender, sexuality) and to insist on treating them simply as a “human being”. Besides that Michelle Alexander in her (2010)[4] The New Jim Crow offers several excellent reasons why this proves permanently problematic, the rarely addressed question “what does human being mean” defaults (in the United States) specifically to “white” and “male”. Unless we give up every conceit to know, in advance, what a human being “is,” so that we never know what we speak of until actually standing face-to-face with another human being, then the desire to ignore the concrete specificity of each human being simply paves the way to a covert patriarchal racism. So, in Davison’s book, even if the emphasis on “his condition” at times seems to generate something too much like a superhero narrative, i.e., a narrative that grounds his success on (literally) heroic effort on his part , the sheer forefronting of his concrete and specific experience as a human being stands out as valuable.

So, if the bullying and emphasis on Davison’s exceptionalism[5] stand out as two features, a most haunting sequence (for me) occurs in a very short (three page) episode. Davison as a boy sits next to a (slightly older) girl who seems to have severe cerebral palsy. She speaks, but Davison (the adult artist) presents the sounds as garbled. The boy informs the nurses (out of the frame) that the girl may need to go to the bathroom, describing her as “shmelly”. Out of the frame, the girl gets taken away, and we hear only the nurse’s alarmed report about “haemorrhaging” and the need to call a doctor. In the next, one-page frame, the boy sits somewhere, while an out-of-sight adult asks if he understands that the girl will not ever return, that she died.

Unfortunately, Davison gives us essentially no details about this girl’s life. All he permits us to know of her: cerebral palsy has her twisted up, she can barely communicate (or perhaps not at all), and then she dies. Whatever impulse a reader might feel to avoid “mere pity,” the reader would then have to supply every other detail herself. Did this girl have the same kind of loving and supportive family life that Davison did?[6] Or did her family deem her an unbearable nuisance and burden? We never see her parents—a nurse and an alluded to doctor make for the adults associated with her. Did she know any others?

I would like to think Davison in no way tries to make a moral comparison here—that he (whether through force of will or family support or both) managed to overcome the challenge thrown across his path by life, while this girl failed to. But even if he does not intend this, within the context of the book, I see two basic narrative functions it fulfils. For one, it throws into sharp relief the “stakes” in his own life. We don’t know why the girl starts haemorrhaging—it just seems something that happens—but it may come about (given the hospital setting) due to a surgery performed on her. Thus, as a “symbol” she illustrates the grave risks that Davison faced with multiple surgeries—risks that he survived but the girl did not.

However—and again because Davison does not seem to provide any more detail but not only drops this episode without warning into the book but also allows it to pass out of the book without having an further narrative autobiographical consequences[7]—it does not seem to resonate principally in this way (as a commentary upon the British medical system or the risks of multiple surgeries faced by Davison as a boy). But if we do read the episode as this, one thing remains: he survived, and she did not (and/or the British medical system killed her, but not him).

Even if we belligerently read this as sheer luck—and I don’t think Davison’s text encourages such a reading—it still veers toward an uncomfortable piece of exceptionalism. As I corrected extensively (from example, here) from Canetti’s (1960)[8] diffuse rambling in Crowds and Power, those who survive disasters at times come to view themselves as elect in some way: just as Abraham, Noah, Josephus, and the Puritans[9] in the wake of the syphilis epidemic in northern Europe came to. Davison does not seem to suggest the pathological elements of this survivorship, but his heavy emphasis here on overcoming and triumph (on the part of his sister as well) at the very least echoes and resonates with that discourse. At root: he survived, the girl did not.

You could rather easily convince me that Davison does not intend to contrast the girl’s “fate” with his own—in other words, that he principally desires simply to record a traumatic episode from his childhood—but it seems unreasonable or naïve to expect readers not to notice a contrast or (even less reasonably) not to infer anything from that contrast. Not that she deserves to die—or that we should fire up all of those repugnant eugenic arguments, at least two of which Davison repeats in his book—and not even (at least not exactly) that the emphasis on effort and will on his part implies that she didn’t try hard enough (or lacked the will to try hard enough).[10]

Rather, at root, the text gives little more than (or perhaps not even the minimum) to avoid coming away with a sense of the enormous unfairness that “fated” the girl to her situation in the first place. Having shown us multiple times already how cruelly people respond to “cripples” in his book—to a “cripple” like himself who presents to the world as more or less ambulatory (if strangely so), whose face at least has stereotypical markers of “cuteness,” and whose manner of speaking (during the episodes showing him as a child) also have conventional markers of “cuteness” (i.e., Davison writes him as using words like “pwease” and “shmelly”). By contrast, Davison does not show the girl as ambulatory at all (she may have almost no freedom of motion), her appearance has the distortions of cerebral palsy that do not align with conventional appearances of cuteness, and her speech gets transcribed as unintelligible.

And she dies, presumably painfully of a haemorrhage either somehow resulting from her condition or due to some less than perfectly accomplished medical procedure. The horror of her circumstance does not need to centre on pity about cerebral palsy, even if that makes for the path of least resistance. The vulnerability of her circumstance seems exponentially worse. Whereas little Alan can express his needs, the girl must rely on another child to speak for her within a context of adult negligence. Where little Alan can at least try to defend himself against or evade any attackers, the girl seems utterly defenceless, if no one will stick up for her. And no one—unlike the adult Alan who finds a woman who finds his specific body not just appealing but sexually attractive—expresses anything resembling affection for the girl due to her cuteness—not even the reading, I would wager.

Davison puts us in the unenviable position of having little more than abject pity for her circumstance, however welcome or inappropriate that might be. And that she exists only to die (in the narrative), unloved, unable to express her wants or needs, and as seemingly little more than a risk liability for the medical professionals who handle her mounts a titanic inner howl of protest against a world or fate or nature that allows her existential human condition to come down to this.

At this point, one could rail against a “god” that would do such a thing, and thus all of the accompanying and incoherent apologetics to “rationalise” such creative malfeasance. The girl’s fate here makes more sense and a better argument for the absence of any such cruel deity—ignoring, again, all of the sadistic and repulsive apologetics[11] one might offer. But, happily—or perhaps happily makes a poor choice of words—reality (or nature or the world) challenges us with the more aggravating[12] but hopeful prospect of its “culpability”.

The qualities of Davison’s life—a combination of luck, unending familial support, personal willpower and, to some extent, a condition less severe or more manageable than the girl’s—shows that the elements exist, if only the social will particularly, to find a way to engender a high quality of life for all human beings. It seems unfortunate that Davison (or life) requires such vast portions of luck, familial effort, and individual perseverance to arrive at such a quality of life; clearly, the girl had not enough of this social support in her life.

I have a hard time reading this book as about anything but her, in the final analysis. Davison talks about the spiral cage of DNA as imprisoning him (or trying to), and yet this girl, twisted around herself, seems a more visible and literal image of someone caught in a spiral cage. Somewhere in a couple of Brecht plays, some grunts remark, “There’d be no need for heroics if things were well-managed.” In a properly arranged social world, no one would have to resort to Davison’s heroics to achieve a satisfying human life; rather, the world would have the support required so that even this girl would go to her grave with a satiated, wistful sigh, “Ah, life.”[13]

 


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Davison, A. (2003). The spiral cage, Active Images, Astral Gypsy Press, pp. 1–144.

[3] If I disregard the plumping Alan Moore gives the book in the introduction, and the rather relentlessly (I mean, unconvincingly) grinning way that Davison draws Maggie, his now-life partner.

[4] Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness: The New Press.

[5] I don’t want to take anything away from his own accomplishments, and it also becomes very easy to centre all agency on him, even though he includes his family (especially his mother and sister) as extremely supportive elements, most of all during his earliest childhood. But also, a small army of doctors performed corrective surgery—even if Davison seems to focus more explicitly on medical practitioners who insisted (to his mother) that he had a hopeless case. Quite obviously, vast and crushing loneliness played a huge role in his life at many points, especially when grown, along with the sheer fact that his body would not for a long time express his will as he desired. I doubt, in any case, that he would glare in your eye and say I did it, as if he alone had overcome everything the world and his body could throw across his path. Nonetheless, it doesn’t take much effort to read (or misread) the book that way.

[6] At some point in the book, Davison reveals his sister Susan has cerebral palsy and has won (literally) scores of athletic awards. Again, this reprises the implied family life—that all children “are” children regardless of “condition”—and that with that kind of support (or, less convincingly, by sheer force of will) one may not just survive, but triumph. Again, Davison gives us little specific background here, so without doing the extra work of a reader to fill in all of the gaps, certain “default” readings of this narrative will likely emerge. And, again, I don’t mean this as a criticism but rather for the hideous starkness of comparison it sets up for the girl with cerebral palsy who haemorrhaged to death.

[7] Assuming, of course, that I’ve not just failed to read the book correctly.

[8] Canetti, E. (1981). Crowds and Power (trans. Carol Stewart), 6th printing. New York: NY: Noonday Press

[9] See Osborne, L. (1993). The poisoned embrace: a brief history of sexual pessimism. 1st American ed. New York: Pantheon Books

[10] This also doesn’t mean people wouldn’t, can’t, or haven’t made such claims.

[11] Judeo-Christian apologetics.

[12] Aggravating because if “god” deals the girl this hand, we may console ourselves with the monstrousness of his dereliction and thus dismiss the issue once and for all, however unhappily. Without “god” as a whipping-deity, we must “blame” nature or the world or ourselves, but without providing any satisfactory answer. The aggravation serves as the sign that we might change things, somehow, someday. Blaming “god” washes our hands of the matter and lies that we should not think to challenge the girl’s “fate” at all.

[13] Quoting Maude from Harold and Maude.

SONG LYRICS:

People I know usually
use the word system casually
to describe something pre-existing
as a mess
without resisting it
or the fitness
of its itness.

What is a system?
What are we really looking for?
And how do we undo the true
and all the systems
that have gone before?

Art treats an audience; medicine treats a patient. Justice disciplines criminals; education disciplines students. Art and medicine treat its subjects as involuntarily afflicted—both whole-heartedly hope to be treated. Justice and education treat its subjects as obdurately ignorant—both at most only half-heartedly want what’s offered or forced.

IN THE CURRENT SYSTEMS’ SPEAKS (intended consequences) [PROPOSED LANGUAGE]:
Art & medicine treat; education & justice discipline.
Art & education elevate; medicine & justice restore.
Art & justice temper; medicine & education empower.

IN THE CURRENT SYSTEMS’ SHADOWS (unintended consequences) [PROPOSED LANGUAGE]:
Art & medicine trick; justice & education degrade.
Art & education indoctrinate; medicine & justice collude.
Art & justice disinform; medicine & education intoxicate.

WHAT WOULD BE THE:
The art of medicine, education, & justice          The audience of medicine, education, & justice
The medicine of art, education, & justice          The patient of art, education, & justice.
The education of art, medicine, & justice          The student of art, medicine, & justice.
The justice of art, education, & medicine          The criminal of art, education, & medicine

WASTE

A system requires inputs (resources) and generates outputs both desired (products) and undesired (waste). A system that maximises desired outputs to the detriment of all else necessarily generates maximum indifference to its waste, if not a maximum of waste itself. In the domain of industrial production and human resource consumption, for example, in the last fifty years we have destroyed 50% of the biodiversity on the planet, dramatically increased the consequences and growing threats of global climate change, and decimated or degraded innumerable ecologies (including our own) all over the world. In the pursuit of product and lifestyle, we have maximized or at least greatly increased pollution.

At times, a euphemism in economic circles for this waste is surplus, an excess. And such surplus sometimes serves as a new input to a new system. In Japan, for instance, they’ve made meat from recycled human faeces.

  • In the system of mass incarceration, for instance, a surplus of human beings generated by the previous systems of slavery, Jim Crow, gentrification, deindustrialization, and globalization gets used as material for warehousing; like nuclear waste, systems profit by simply containing this human surplus.
  • In the system of the culture industry, literal garbage and discarded objects from the previous systems of culture get used as material for new works; like recycling, systems profit from this cultural re-use but critics say it wastes more energy and effort than it saves.
  • In the system of compulsory education, although a mind is a terrible thing to waste, the technically infinite human potential of the next generation of human beings brought about by the previous systems of social reproduction gets lost in the transmission of that education; like the distribution of power in an electrical grid from the source to its consumer, only a fraction of the energy expended on education (as little as 20 per cent) occurs in schools.
  • In the system of corporatized health care delivery, [medical waste, human waste, wasted time]

TIME

With respect to time, education and justice treat it as lavishly abundant, and supply long sentences to be endured by criminals and students alike.[1] Art and medicine, by contrast, especially in their industrialized forms, treat time as a very limited resource—so limited, in fact, that any strict routine, however desired, cannot be articulated or maintained. Thus, the old days of the house call as well as the hyper-social and protracted time of art (in the museum stroll, in a night at the opera, in the extended interaction of a Baroque dance suite) stands in stark contrast. The time of art and medicine once were abundantly lavish as well, so that their reduction seems significant, and the imperative of their restoration, therefore, obvious.

With respect to space, all four systems are highly disciplined. Beginning with the confinement of Dionysus’ riotous rituals to within a building in Athens, the theatre (or museum), the school, the hospital (or the clinic), and the prison have long-since established their own specialised zones. While the scope of each space seems always lavish overall, the interior discipline of the space has since maximised capacity: closely cramped theatre seats, double occupancy prison cells and hospital rooms, tiny clinic rooms, overcrowded schoolrooms.[2] Once again, the original outdoorsiness of these spaces, an especially how they permitted a porousness of interaction with those around a participant, makes all the more obvious the sharp isolation of the theatre seat, the prison cell, the clinic room. We learn this isolation—this detachment from others—in the school room, require the privacy of it in the clinic, demand it from others (as silence) in theatres, and may discern its (neurotic) emphasis on security and safety from the value implied by the cell within prisons. More than money, which merely enables our isolation from others, school indoctrinates us to positively crave that atomisation. In general, though, a greater volume of space seems formally dedicated to prisons and schools than to theatres or hospitals, but this might well be a misperception.[3]

Endnotes

[1] This lavish expanse of time does not mean that time itself is not disciplined. In both schools and prisons, time breaks own into very routinized sequences.

[2] Apropos of overcrowding, the US Supreme Court declared overcrowding in prison fundamentally contrary to human dignity.

[3] There are approximately 5,723 hospitals (9.2 million beds; 36.1 million admissions; $829.6 billion in revenue), 5,928 movie theaters (9.9 million seats; 1,340.0 million admissions; $10.9 billion in revenue), 4,575 prison facilities (*), and 132,183 schools (**; $607 billion in revenue). *When it comes to prison “seats” counting becomes difficult. The total number of inmates = ~2.2 million, but their housing consists of one-man cells (usually with the occupancy illegally doubled, sometimes tripled) or bunk-beds set up in in gyms. So whatever the number of humans, prison administrations have provided at best only half as many “seats” as needed. **Similarly for students, where the number of seats provided does not necessarily meet the approximately 54.8 million students.

Summary (TLDR Version)

Contrary to the “thesis” of this graphic novel, the human experience of life never progresses from signal to noise, but from signal to signal. The pleasant solace that the unbearable becomes meaningless supports the current political order and seems particularly a luxury of the principal beneficiaries of that order (i.e., the book’s main character, as well as Gaiman and McKean).

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

This means you might disagree with me, especially where I have it wrong. Also, here may be typos!

A Reply To: Gaiman and McKean’s (2007)[2] Signal to Noise [Part 1]

Some ad-text says of this graphic novel, which has as its tagline “How do you make sense of your life?”:

Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean present their masterpiece, Signal to Noise! Somewhere in London, a film director is dying of cancer. His life’s crowning achievement, his greatest film, would have told the story of a European village as the last hour of 999 AD approached – the midnight that the villagers were convinced would bring with it Armageddon. Now that story will never be told. But he’s still working it out in his head, making a film that no one will ever see. No one but us.

I have subjected myself to more Gaiman lately (see here and here) in order either (1) to find some justification for the wildness of praise for his writing or (2) to decipher once and for all why his writing strikes me as so trite—slick, yes, but trite. Soulless.

Some time ago, I read Gaiman and McKean’s (1995)[3] The Tragical Comedy Or Comical Tragedy Of Mr Punch: A Romance, and even though I had serious reservations about it (see here), at least the story didn’t seem mawkish or ultimately vapid, and the memory of it gave me reason to think that when Gaiman had no obligation to write in a given (comic book) setting, as he did in Black Orchid and Sandman, then perhaps that would free him to let his talents shine. So I half-looked-forward to this book.

Error.

That the book had as a tagline “how do you make sense of your life” gave me pause in advance. That we must make some sort of coherent sense of daily experiences points, of course, to the most element stuff of life, but at its most interesting, a narrative centring on this theme could only show us one (or more) person doing his or her version of what we all already must do all the time. More likely, this question on the back of the book serves merely to smear a false greater significance over the text, in the same way that we we might decide to make a great fuss over the fact that someone has breathed.

This graphic novel juxtaposes images of an unmade film about people anticipating the end of the world and that filmmaker’s confronting a less fictional end of the world in his cancer diagnosis. Whatever narrative relationship this juxtaposition might have conjured up, it never really becomes anything more than mere juxtaposition. At this point, we may as well remember that the book sports the title signal to noise—not noise to signal, i.e.,  “making sense of one’s life,” but rather the opposite: disintegration.

Usually about now, when analyzing a Gaiman text, I remember the glories of McKean’s accompanying visuals. And while this book sports spots of the usual brilliance, much of McKean’s work here seems sub-par for him. I give it a B-, maybe a C+ (relative, of course, to his own standard of work, not in comparison to most artists working in the field).

In general, no shortage of cheesy or ghastly cultural offerings maunder around for pages and pages of incoherent dreck only to set off some explosions or crucify a goat in the last five minutes to make the whole thing seem climactic. However, Gaiman doesn’t even supply that here, but instead indulges (to a frankly surprising degree of blather) in nine pages of eulogy for the (now) dead filmmaker by his lover. Nonetheless, Gaiman apparently can’t resist inserting an irony here (or perhaps he just couldn’t overlook that he’d allowed himself to go too far with this eulogy), and appends the lover’s name and the date of her eulogy-rambling to it “1 April 2000”. Ah, an April Fool’s prank. (Originally written in 1995, by pointing to the year 2000, the book points of course to the approaching ending millennium as well.) Regardless, the April Fool’s gesture seems meant to turn the signal of the eulogy to noise.

Along similar lines: many of the title pages for chapters have largely incoherent text on them; the author (vainly or politely) distances himself from this by noting near the last page that “intertextual material was created with the assistance of a Canon Lasercopier 2000, and the Babble 2.0 text sampler programme” (116), i.e., a random text generator. Thus, just as a reader might have foolishly made sense of the filmmaker’s lover making (foolish) sense of his life on April Fool’s day as both the end of the world and the book approached, so might they have foolishly tried to make some kind of sense of the senseless intertextual material. Thus, just as the April Fool’s announcement turns the signal of the eulogy to noise (or tries to), the announcement of random text generation turns whatever signal of sense the reader made of the intertextual material into noise as well. Of course, while this attempts to disabuse the reader of her reading, the missing part hinges on the fact that these negations themselves amount to signals: specifically, “you were deceived in your reading.”

While these facile gestures reflect the theme of disintegration (signal to noise) that the author seems to want to push, the fact that the process of reading proceeds cumulatively entails that no matter how much doubt about the narrative events the author should pile up in a reader’s brain that she or he no longer could say what has or has not happened, nonetheless this attempt to declare everything “noise” must fail, even if the writer employed Babble 2.0 for the entire text.

In other words, Gaiman handles this structural theme in a self-canceling way, albeit on several levels. The filmmaker (an artist reflecting on life) never produces (but he does make) the film—shall we call that noise to signal or vice versa? And Gaiman (a lifer reflecting on art?) produces (but fails to make?) this book—shall we call that signal to noise or vice versa? The filmmaker’s lover—named after one of the great goddesses of Mesopotamia—provides a sense-making of the filmmaker’s life, but Gaiman makes a joke of it? He labours over his text (one supposes) then throws in Babel (also from ancient Mesopotamia) to make a joke of it? This “epistemological” muddle only “works” in the way Gaiman wants if you willfully pretend that these sorts of gestures do not themselves assert a specific meaning, i.e., a signal. In other words, “everything is noise” already transmits a signal, not a noise.

I wonder if Gaiman thinks the book really runs signal to noise—as if he believes the early parts of the book transmit as as crystal clear (unambiguous signal) and then undergoes, despite further iterations, disintegration to noise. If so, both assumptions seem false.

One of the most obnoxious features of Hemingway’s writing: he seems never to evince any grasp that different readings of his text could occur. He gives us that Jake Barnes has no balls and feels sorry for himself that he’ll never fuck again, so that apparently Jake (and Hemingway alike) can’t imagine any other sexual pleasure than erections require, i.e., the pleasure of giving a woman head or, even less, receiving anal intercourse–or even just getting hi limp dick licked. In a similar fashion, Gaiman equips his story with a celebrated (male) artist, endowed with a devoted love interest, and then gives him cancer. The filmmaker (and Gaiman apparently) takes this as an unavoidable death sentence, so that he even refuses treatment, &c, because (of course) cancer (as signal) can only mean a death sentence (disintegration to noise). However, the very choice of cancer seems inapt; the metastatic growth of cancer represents further articulations of signal (order), however lethal it proves for a body. So, try as he might, the theme and imagery (especially in McKean’s illustration of progressively more and more torn up pages of the film’s treatment), the purported shift from signal to noise doesn’t come across. More succinctly, whatever disorder Gaiman intends “noise” to signal, the human experience of disintegration (and even noise per se) involves it as a signal, never noise.

At the outer level of the book, Gaiman seeks to implicate the reader (I think). You encounter a random intertextual item, and you make some kind of sense of it (or, like me, you don’t), and later on you can feel foolish (or not) for falling prey to the stunt, just as you can fall prey to the “joke” of life that tricked you into thinking that it had something more than “noise” about it, and so on. Alternatively, you can disregard the fundamental error Gaiman indulges in here and read the story for the signal (from start to finish) that it presents without accepting the annihilating attempts embodied in these meta-aspects (in phrases like “signal to noise” or “how do you make sense of your life”).

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Gaiman, N., and McKean, D. (2007). Signal to noise (second ed.), Milwaukee, OR: Dark Horse Books, pp. 1–117.

[3] Gaiman, N., & McKean, D. (1995). The tragical comedy or comical tragedy of Mr. Punch: a romance. 1st paperback ed. New York, N.Y.: Vertigo/DC Comics, pp. 1–96.

Summary (TLDR Version)

Art, especially self-selected music, not only has scientifically demonstrated strong psychological health benefits as well as a preventative medicine effect as strong s not smoking, it also has scientifically demonstrated physiological benefits as well. We may improve the health-care delivery experience across the board–for patients, care-providers, and administrations–by integrating the arts into that system.

Art & Health

Vast amounts of research link well-being, mental health, and happiness to art and art therapy not just in general (Ettun, Schultz, & Bar-Sela, 2014; Fraser & al Sayah, 2011; Marks, Murray, Evans, & Estacio, 2010; Stuckey & Nobel, 2010) but also with respect to the states of mind in patients with specific circumstances as wide-ranging as chronic fatigue syndrome (Reynolds & Vivat, 2010), chronically ill children (Reed, Kennedy, & Wamboldt, 2014), diabetes (Iwasaki & Bartlett, 2006), the siblings of hematopoietic stem cell transplant patients (Wallace et al., 2014), HIV/AIDS patients (Feldman, Betts, & Blausey, 2014), &c. The health arts have become a major area of focus in Australia, Canada, Israel, and the UK (Clift et al., 2009; Cox et al., 2010; Schwartz, 2014; Wreford, 2010). Summarising, Maujean, Pepping, and Kendall (2014) note in their review of “8 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) conducted with adult populations from 2008–2013 that met a high standard of rigor … all but one reported beneficial effects of art therapy.”

While art therapy supports psychological happiness, mental well-being, and increased mental health, the direct physiological benefits of art or art therapy remain less studied. However, Veenhoven (2008) found that while “happiness does not cure illness … it does protect against becoming ill. The effect of happiness on longevity in healthy populations is remarkably strong. The size of the effect is comparable to that of smoking or not ” (emphasis added). Art as preventive medicine is as healthy as not smoking.

Psychological well-being not just health generally but also the experience of health-care. In hospital settings, for instance, Moss and O’Neill (2014) identified seven themes associated with patient experiences: “loss and the impact of illness on leisure activities; patients’ interests and passions; a lack of expectation of arts in hospital; the positive impact of arts in hospital for those who had experienced them; varying preference between receptive and participative arts activity according to phase of illness; aesthetic aspects of the hospital experience; recommendations for changes to improve arts in hospital” (emphasis added). The same authors found art interventions more salutary during the acute phase of a hospital stay. And even a statistically cautious study like Davies, Knuiman, Wright, and Rosenberg (2014) admits that “given the increasing pressure on health resources, the arts have the potential to assist in the promotion of health and healing.”

While art has solidly established effect on mental health both psychologically and experientially for patients during encounters with the health-care system, and while art demonstrates a remarkably strong preventative effect, this as yet identifies no direct physiological benefits for art. Staricoff (2004), summarising 385 studies, writes:

This review has identified a number of medical areas in which the research studies have shown clear and reliable evidence that clinical outcomes have been achieved through the intervention of the arts. Specific outcomes for both in-patient and outpatient departments include the following:

  • Cancer care: visual art and live and taped music have been used in a number of studies addressing high anxiety and depression during chemotherapy. The arts were effective in reducing both anxiety and depression, and acted as a potent adjuvant to avert side-effects of the treatment
  • Cardiovascular unit: the use of appropriate music, through tapes, video music or personal headphones led to reports of a significant reduction in anxiety levels and the levels of vital signs – blood pressure, heart rate, demand for myocardial oxygen
  • Intensive care unit: the use of music in neonatal intensive care has shown statistically significant improvement in clinical and behavioural states. Very importantly, the benefits significantly reduced the length of stay in hospital
  • Medical procedures: a number of medical procedures for screening and/or diagnosis generate high levels of stress. Arts interventions have been shown to increase the perception of comfort, to reduce the levels of cortisol (a hormonal indicator of stress), and to significantly control blood pressure levels
  • Pain management: music induced significant reductions on physiological and psychological variables related to pain indicators. A number of authors reported a significant reduction in the use of medication to reduce pain after surgery
  • Surgery: self-selected music, live music and the visual arts have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, as well as helping to control vital signs. The use of music was found to be very effective in the post-operative recovery period, reducing requirements for sedatives

Staricoff (2004) does not emphasise only the principal benefits for patients, i.e., inducing positive psychological and physiological changes in clinical outcomes, reducing drug consumption, and shortening length of stay in hospital, but also further system-wide benefits. These include:

The effect of the arts and humanities on staff outcomes

This review has analysed a number of studies concerning job satisfaction, including:

  • the introduction of works of art and of nature features in the design of the healthcare service
  • the intervention of music in creating a non-aggressive environment
  • the use of the arts in nursing and medical training to improve communication, empathy and understanding of patients’ needs The literature does not include reliable studies on the possible relationship between the use of arts in the healthcare environment and its effect on the recruitment and retention of staff.

The effect of the arts and humanities on the education and training of practitioners

This section reviews the available evidence on the direct effect of the arts on health practitioners. It also addresses the key issues emerging as a result of incorporating the arts and humanities into medical and nursing undergraduate and post-graduate courses. The following topics are presented:

  • Evidence that listening to self-selected music increases mental task performance in surgeons
  • The benefits of using music in operating theatres to create a less stressful environment, and the problems that the use of music could pose for the surgical team
  • The role of the visual arts in developing the observational skills of the medical practitioner and in increasing ability in drawing, stereo vision and three-dimensional thinking in neurosurgeons
  • The evaluation of the results of introducing nursing students to the fine arts, showing that the arts increase awareness in dealing with illness and bereavement, as well as strengthening students’ confidence in their own practice
  • The introduction of the arts and humanities into nursing and medical education led to an increased capacity in students for critical analysis and understanding of illness and suffering. This prompted health practitioners to respond in a more humane and thoughtful manner to medical, ethical and social needs

The effects of the arts in mental healthcare

The use of the arts in mental healthcare helps to improve the communication skills of mental health users, helping in their relationship with family and mental health providers. It also provides patients with new ways of expressing themselves, stimulates their creativity skills and enhances their self-esteem. The use of the arts in mental health services also brings about behavioural changes in mental health users: patients become more calm, attentive and collaborative. These changes help in the everyday managing of a mental health service, diminishing the need for medication and physical restraint. Different art forms have been shown to have different effects.

  • The use of literature, creative writing and poetry in mental health services produces significant benefits for both the patient and the care provider. It enables patients to regain control over their own inner world, increasing their mental wellbeing. It helps the nursing and medical staff to understand the cultural, social, ethnic and economic factors influencing the behaviour of patients
  • Theatre, drama and visual arts all provide patients with powerful ways of expressing themselves and understanding their own world. This promotes empathy between patients and staff
  • Music, singing and dancing all help mental health patients to recall events from their lives. These art forms help them to express themselves and, on a physical level, to increase their range of movement

The effect of different art forms

There is a lack of rigorous research on the contribution of different types of art forms to healthcare.

  • Positive clinical outcomes are induced by the intervention of classical and meditative types of music. They reduce stress, anxiety and perception of pain. Live music, when appropriate, has more significant benefits than recorded music
  • Familiar tunes, which are pre-selected by the patient, are shown to be a very effective approach in mental healthcare; triggering familiar memories and enjoyment
  • The introduction of visual art into healthcare proved to play an important role in improving observational skills in health practitioners and in increasing patients’ wellbeing

Mechanisms involved in the perception and processing of art

  • Science and technology are getting closer to understanding the mechanisms underlying perception, processing and the emotional responses elicited by the arts. Many of the different areas of the brain and neural networks involved in these processes have been identified
  • The exploration of the association between the mental and physical state of artists and their artistic work gives an insight into the process of artistic creativity, helping scientists to understand the causes of numerous diseases and to find potential treatments. This is achieved through an analysis of artists’ work, how their work changes throughout time and on the use of shapes, forms or colours, which can be related to specific changes occurring in the brain
  • The understanding and description of the patterns of emotional response elicited by different art forms contribute to the rational and appropriate use of the arts in creating a powerful therapeutic environment

Conclusions

This review includes 385 references from medical literature related to the effect of the arts and humanities in healthcare. It offers strong evidence of the influence of the arts and humanities in achieving effective approaches to patient management and to the education and training of health practitioners. It identifies the relative contribution of different art forms to the final aim of creating a therapeutic healthcare environment. It highlights the crucial importance of the arts and humanities in:

  • inducing positive physiological and psychological changes in clinical outcomes
  • reducing drug consumption
  • shortening length of stay in hospital
  • increasing job satisfaction
  • promoting better doctor-patient relationships
  • improving mental healthcare
  • developing health practitioners’ empathy across gender and cultural diversity

Recommendations for future research

  • The effect of the arts and humanities as contributing factors in recruitment and retention of staff has not yet been evaluated. The literature refers to their influence on job satisfaction, but the link and repercussion on recruitment and retention has not been evaluated
  • The type of musical instruments in relation to the clinical setting deserves further research, perhaps leading to the introduction of guidelines to optimise the beneficial outcomes of music in healthcare environments
  • The effect of integrating different art forms and humanities into the healthcare culture in issues such as social inclusion and cultural understanding should be evaluated

I would add, lastly, that while scientific study has a value in establishing or confirming various beneficial effects of art, the mind/body distinction at work that rigorously separates the psychological and the physiological represents an untested, perhaps untestable, hypothesis. Much of the evidence above shows how the alleviation of psychological stressors has physiological consequences, but the human experience itself never consists of anything other than “psychological”. The use of sedatives presupposes this–simply numb the “biological” experience of the body (to the point where it doesn’t even register) and this alleviates the (psychological) experience of distress.

Put another way, if we understand art as a sedative, i.e., something that fosters relaxation in a patient and thus a concomitant reduction of stress, the usefulness of this should not narrow our understanding of the therapeutic value of art only to this. In mental health scenarios, breakthroughs from highly traumatic experiences become accessible via art therapy practices; however that might analogise to a circumstance of heart-attack or stroke remains open to exploration. Art therapy regular speaks in its mental health contexts of “healing”. And if it works, it does so by addressing not the “underlying” psychological basis of the trauma that needs healing but, rather, the human experience of the trauma and overcoming it. Similarly, any therapeutic practice of art in a non-mental health setting would succeed not by addressing the “underlying” physiological basis of the trauma that needs healing but, rather, the human experience of that trauma and overcoming it.

In other words, humming one of Bach’s chorales won’t repair the underlying damage of a heart-attack or cirrhosis, &c, but it will repair the human experience of damage that the heart-attack or cirrhosis has left behind.

References

Clift, S., M. Camic, P., Chapman, B., Clayton, G., Daykin, N., Eades, G., . . . White, M. (2009). The state of arts and health in England. Arts & Health, 1(1), 6-35.

Cox, S. M., Lafrenière, D., Brett-MacLean, P., Collie, K., Cooley, N., Dunbrack, J., & Frager, G. (2010). Tipping the iceberg? The state of arts and health in Canada. Arts & Health, 2(2), 109-124.

Davies, C. R., Knuiman, M., Wright, P., & Rosenberg, M. (2014). The art of being healthy: a qualitative study to develop a thematic framework for understanding the relationship between health and the arts. BMJ open, 4(4), e004790.

Ettun, R., Schultz, M., & Bar-Sela, G. (2014). Transforming Pain into Beauty: On Art, Healing, and Care for the Spirit. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2014.

Feldman, M. B., Betts, D. J., & Blausey, D. (2014). Process and Outcome Evaluation of an Art Therapy Program for People Living With HIV/AIDS. Art Therapy, 31(3), 102-109.

Fraser, K. D., & al Sayah, F. (2011). Arts-based methods in health research: A systematic review of the literature. Arts & Health, 3(2), 110-145.

Iwasaki, Y., & Bartlett, J. G. (2006). Culturally meaningful leisure as a way of coping with stress among aboriginal individuals with diabetes. Journal of Leisure Research, 38(3), 321-338.

Marks, D. F., Murray, M., Evans, B., & Estacio, E. V. (2010). Health psychology: Theory, research and practice: Sage.

Maujean, A., Pepping, C. A., & Kendall, E. (2014). A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Studies of Art Therapy. Art Therapy, 31(1), 37-44.

Moss, H., & O’Neill, D. (2014). The aesthetic and cultural interests of patients attending an acute hospital–a phenomenological study. Journal of advanced nursing, 70(1), 121-129.

Reed, K., Kennedy, H., & Wamboldt, M. Z. (2014). Art for Life: A community arts mentorship program for chronically ill children. Arts & Health(ahead-of-print), 1-13.

Reynolds, F., & Vivat, B. (2010). Art-making and identity work: A qualitative study of women living with chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME). Arts & Health, 2(1), 67-80.

Schwartz, S. (2014). A survey of arts and health programmes in Israel. Journal of Applied Arts & Health, 4(3), 265-279.

Staricoff, R. L. (2004). Arts in health: A review of medical literature: Arts Council England London.

Stuckey, H. L., & Nobel, J. (2010). The connection between art, healing, and public health: A review of current literature. American Journal of Public Health, 100(2), 254.

Veenhoven, R. (2008). Healthy happiness: Effects of happiness on physical health and the consequences for preventive health care. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9(3), 449-469.

Wallace, J., Packman, W., Huffman, L. C., Horn, B., Cowan, M., Amylon, M. D., . . . Moses, J. (2014). Psychosocial Changes Associated With Participation in Art Therapy Interventions for Siblings of Pediatric Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplant Patients. Art Therapy, 31(1), 4-11.

Wreford, G. (2010). The state of arts and health in Australia. Arts & Health, 2(1), 8-22.

 

Summary (TLDR Version)

Misreading this book incorrectly, it shows us the tragedy of the most banal happy ending.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

This means you might disagree with me, especially where I have it wrong.

A Reply To: Jim Woodring’s (2011)[2] Congress of the Animals

In Martin Vaughn-James’s graphic novel The Cage, although he includes a text that meant to act[3] as something like a “voice-over”— perhaps more accurately in a graphic novel we should say text-under—it seems that book’s imagery would benefit (as I noted previously) from the removal of that text.[4] Whatever annoying qualities a reader might find off-putting about Vaughn-James’s text, that the text-under seems to operate (only half-successfully, if even that much) as “crib notes” or commentary “meant” for deciphering the book’s imagery seems not only intrusive but also evidence of a lack of faith on Vaughn-James’s part that the imagery he drew would successfully tell the story he wants to.

By contrast, Woodring’s Congress of the Animals includes extensive and detailed “crib notes” or commentary on the wordless imagery of his book, but keeps this confined to the dust flaps and back cover. In fact, it seems that Woodring (or someone) has prevailed upon the publishers of Congress of the Animals to allow the filling up of practically all of the space on the inside and outside of the dust flaps and cover with these notes, rather than including the usual facile, misleading, or simply false claims one finds on the backs of books you pick up to read.[5] An interesting strategy, intentional or not.

For this post, then, I intend to examine part of some of these crib notes in some detail, specifically the long bit on the inner left flap of the dust jacket, but I include the whole thing (more than 500 words, two double-spaced typed pages), if only to illustrate how much commentary someone has crammed into this space.

This is the book you have been looking for! This is the book that tells the whole story!

If you’ve been following Frank’s escapades since the days when his eyes were wonky then you know that the Unifactor, the closed system of moral algebra into which Frank was born, is in control of everything that happens to the characters that abide there, and that however extreme the experiences they undergo may be, in the end nothing really changes. That goes treble for Frank himself, who is kept in a state of total ineducability by the unseen forces which control that haunted realm. And so the question arises: what would happen if Frank were to leave The Unifactor?

That query is answered in Congress of the Animals, Jim Woodring’s much-anticipated second full-length graphic novel.

In this gripping saga of idiocy and inevitability an act of casual rudeness sets into motion a chain of events which propels Frank into another realm entirely, a world in which he is both defenceless and powerful; a world where he is on his own at last. And like so many who leave home, Frank finds himself contending with realities of which he had no previous inkling.

Here we are treated to the pitiful escapades of the brash and infantile Quacky, whose tendency to jeer earns him a stone in the bladder. Forced to part with newly-dangerous luxuries, he inadvertently hands Frank the key to the earth’s gullet.

Homeless, Frank does nothing more to elevate himself than to accept an offer; when the bill comes due he is caught unawares and must boot slag. Quacky, similarly reduced, coerces Frank to the low expedient of sabotage. They become lamisters and seek anonymity in amusements.

When their small craft fail to hug the shore they are separated and drift until night falls. Frank’s idyll on the sea ends abrubtly [sic] when his boat is badly bitten by a leviathan grinner. He clings to the flotsam until such time as he makes an inadvertent landfall.

Venturing into the jungle he sees but cannot know a sparkling female comforter thanks to obstinate dubiousness personified. Clutched, he flees and is driven to perceive himself in the form of a distant building. He determines that he must go there.

No, say the blind gut-worshippers, showing their wares and examining his. No, say the dragons, tied to each other and fighting like hot wet wildcats. No, say those who desire to be pulled into the heady depths.

But Frank will have none of these obstacles and eventually applies his knuckles to that door behind which he expects to encounter the riddle of his enigmatic existence. And when that door finally opens he finds … he finds …

Suffice to say he finds what most of us would like to find. Can he bring it back with him? Will the Unifactor accept him as he has become? Are his sins forgiven? Is love real? Is this the end of Frank as we know him?

But I’ve said enough. Perhaps I’ve said too much.

Before chewing on this offered “deciphering” of Woodring’s book, I would say two things.

First, if nothing else, the above does seem (when read after the fact) a summary of the book’s contents, i.e., to reprise recognisably the book’s sequence of images. But in another way, not quite. Just to pick one phrase of the summary to illustrate: “Venturing into the jungle [Frank] sees but cannot know a sparkling female comforter thanks to obstinate dubiousness personified.” Nothing in the book’s imagery would appear to suggest that the figure who (the first time around) blocks Frank’s access to the “sparkling female comforter” in any way embodies “obstinate dubiousness personified”. A reader will almost certainly infer that a big, white-bread-slice-shaped face on a stalk keeps interposing itself and not allowing Frank to approach the “sparkling female comforter,” but nothing about this suggests a reader would decide that “obstinate dubiousness personified” does the blocking. So this points how, in one way, the crib notes may add a major interpretive element to the imagery.

Second, on one description, Congress of Animals depicts seemingly random jumble of events—like Vaughn-James’s book does—but however disconnected it may seem from frame to frame (or from one sequence of events to the next or subsequent sequence of events), the “final outcome” of the book (“Suffice to say he finds what most of us would like to find”) means simply Frank’s acquisition of a romantic partner (presumably female) who he returns to his humble abode with. Feel free to reference Orpheus’ rescue of his wife Eurydice from the underworld or simply any standard hero-quest whatsoever. I’d add we may read also the fact that his house companions (or pets) have seemingly multiplied in his absence as pointing, precisely, to the congress of animals referenced in the title. Thus, love, home-making, and fucking embody “what most of us would like to find”. I find this a phenomenally banal outcome for such an interesting profusion of imagery on Woodring’s part. Nonetheless, however random or disjoint the reader finds the first parts of the book, she or he must almost inevitably snap the whole sequence of inexplicable happenings under the heading of “quest”.[6]

To put these two preliminary points together, then, the reader’s own sense of assembling the sequence of images into a “quest” gets modified (added to, subtracted from) , whether in advance or after the fact, by the more or less plausible, presumably authoritative commentary by the crib-notes on that quest. In other words, we may name two “aha” kinds of moments in this text: the first when the jumble of events becomes evident as a quest, and the second when the crib-notes (at least seem) to explain every point along the way as a necessary part of that quest. At the same time, that this disappointingly banal quest for “what most of us would like to find” (i.e., love, home-making, sex) doesn’t necessarily jibe tidily with the crib-notes remains possibly intriguing, possibly off-putting. For instance, the crib-notes tell us,

when the bill comes due he is caught unawares and must boot slag. Quacky, similarly reduced, coerces Frank to the low expedient of sabotage. They become lamisters and seek anonymity in amusements. When their small craft fail to hug the shore they are separated and drift until night falls. Frank’s idyll on the sea ends abrubtly [sic] when his boat is badly bitten by a leviathan grinner

But what does it mean to “boot slag” or “become lamisters”? Did the writer intentionally misspell “abruptly” or did the “leviathan grinner” (whatever that is) actually abrubtly emerge out of the sea? Of course, Woodring has supplied an image of the “leviathan grinner” though it neither has that name in the book itself nor do we recognise it as such when it appears. So even when the crib-notes purport to “explain” the quest, we may still find ourselves at sea. Just as we may go back to the text and look at the moment when Frank’s boat get bitten to see what a “leviathan grinner” looks like, we may also go back to the sequence where he (apparently) boots slag or becomes a lamister, but this puts us in a curious position of not necessarily feeling we’ve really had explained what we’ve seen.

This tantalizing disconnect between text and image much more deftly accomplishes what Vaughn-James’s book desperately (seems to want) to do. Meanwhile, with the foregoing to help frame delving further into Woodring’s book, let us turn to Frank’s encounter with the gut-worshippers.

The Gutworshippers

The crib-notes say, “Clutched, [Frank] flees and is driven to perceive himself in the form of a distant building. He determines that he must go there.” A series of blocks then occurs to prevent Frank from reaching the building, the first of which involves gut-worshippers. The crib-notes tell us, “No, say the blind gut-worshippers, showing their wares and examining his.” Again, while this verbal description of the sequence, one of the longer one (11–12 pages, or more than 30 frames), gets at the gist of what happens, that these creatures “worship” the gut does not come across.

To (attempt to describe) the actual visual sequence, Frank climbs through a sphere-filled opening in a sphere and discovers inside the realm of the blind gut-worshippers. A half-bust of a statue with its intestines spilling out makes him over his eyes, but as he laughs at yet another statue, he starts violently when the gut-worshippers approach him. These figures lack faces, having only misshapen holes—reminiscent of the bread-slice-face shape of obstinate dubiousness personified.[7] Inside the voids of their faces and heads, the gut-worshippers have a ball-like organ that can rise and fall, reminiscent of a tongue. The sight makes Frank queasy and ill at ease. One gut-worshipper then gets Frank’s attention, but when the creature pulls open his entire belly and torso to display his guts, Frank faints. Propping Frank up, yet another shows him a hallucinogenic device that partially transforms Frank into something like a gut-worshipper—which includes one shape reminiscent of the “sparkling female comforter” in the centre of the page—and then, with a wide (drugged) grin on his face, the gut-worshippers pull part of his intestine from his belly and examine it, a particular gland-like part of it. However, they find Frank’s gut hopelessly wanting and abandon him. He pokes his intestine back in, once he recovers, and then goes on to his next adventure.

Calling these figures gut-worshippers offers another of those significant additions to the text. While a reader almost certainly grasps that the hallucinogenic device presented to Frank causes his trip into a cosmic intestinal realm, the element of “worship” makes the hallucinogenic device more akin to peyote. Regardless, it seems clear enough that Frank does not make the grade in the eyes (or lack of them) of the gut-worshippers—they reject him with various expressions of disgust or disappointment—but the specifically religious or ritual aspect of this seems less likely to get picked up.

In the next sequence, Frank has to bisect an intestinal creature, which the crib-notes call a “dragon,” in order to gain access to the next interior zone. There he meets a helpful guide, who seems decidedly not intestinal (more like sticks with a disc on top, rather than snaky and tube-and-eyes), so one may read a sort of “transcendence” or “going beyond the gut” in what follows. In other words, one must overcome the gut to move forward in the quest.

This kind of theme has plenty of precedents—one must overcome the grossly material in order to achieve the sublimely non-material, &c—but I want to stick with digging into the tension between the crib-notes and the visual events depicted. The phrase “gut-worshipper” (which one would almost certainly not arrive at in the visual depiction) has two different rings to it. In a negative sense, a gut-worshipper embodies someone who sees nothing higher than mere materiality, a belly-thinker only. In a less negative sense—and particularly because this gut-worship comes with a hallucinogen-induced cosmic vision—the visual depiction suggests something more like an authentic “religion” of the gut.

My gut tells me—pun intended—that the writer of the crib-notes means “gut-worshipper” in a negative sense, and if I had to defend that assertion, I would point precisely to the fact that Frank has to kill (overcome) a gut-dragon in order to get into the next, less gut-filled, region to continue his quest. In that sequence, a series of cartoonish creatures (none of them particularly intestinal) pull on ropes going down into a hole in order to drag up something from the depths, and though they succeed, then all (except Frank) wind up getting pulled into that hole; hence the crib-notes summarise this, “No, say those who desire to be pulled into the heady depths.” Importantly, Woodring draws the thing they pull up from the depths as a strange staring-mouthed and multi-eyed head thing with a solar crown on top, i.e., a multi-faced head. It remains an open question whether those who get pulled into the “heady” depths (pun alert!) have themselves transformed into or will become a part of this head, but it remains clear that the cartoons have foolishly called up something they cannot handle (or enthusiastically don’t want to) and get pulled to their “destruction”. Meanwhile, any sharp distinction here between “depths” (gut) and “head” seems to break down.

So, in terms of reaching the image of himself, Frank proves no good to the gut-worshippers themselves and fails as one of those “who desire to be pulled into the heady depths”. These two sequences taken together contrast (undesirable) “gut” and either (more desirable) “head” or simply the transcendence of both, since Frank must go beyond both of these blocks, these “no”s: “No, say the blind gut-worshippers, showing their wares and examining his. No, say the dragons, tied to each other and fighting like hot wet wildcats. No, say those who desire to be pulled into the heady depths.”

I propose that the crib-notes then impose an overly conventional body/spirit dichotomy in what Woodring depicts; i.e., the crib-notes pose the gut-worshippers and those who would be pulled into the heady depths (and the dragon of course) as obstacles Frank must overcome in order to move forward (and achieve the very banal outcome of a Congress of Animals—pun intended). Nonetheless, the visuals of the sequence at best only ambiguously support this. Meanwhile, the crib-notes also contradict themselves. After his brush with the sparkling female comforter blocked by obstinate dubiousness personified, Frank “is driven to perceive himself in the form of a distant building.” However, on the back of the book, a text describes that building as “a reminder that architecture which resembles one is always meant for another.” Probably not insignificantly, this building has a face like a gut-worshipper but nonetheless does have the door Frank knocks on to obtain the banal love-interest.

I don’t feel a need to sort out the imagery into some tidy narrative; hopefully, the tensions and contradictions add, rather than subtract, from the book. Prior to the gut-worshippers, a face on a stalk, that could well serve for a removed gut-worshipper face, prevents (blocks) Frank from reaching the sparkling female comforter, described on the back of the book as “a glimpse of something too attractive to resist and too exalted to possess”. During his cosmic trip with the gut-worshippers, something similarly shaped resides at the (literal) centre of his trip as he at least partially transforms, face-wise, into a gut-worshipper. He then flies with his intestines hanging out and twice encounters variations of the face-on-stalk figure, before he enters the cosmic realm itself and experience that “brief side trip down the endless corridor of that insanity that seems like grace”. And, finally, with those who would plunge into the heady depths, the multi-faced figure on a thick stalk that appears, Woodring (or the back of the book) describes as that “agency which makes one feel at home in the earth.” At the very end, once together with his love-interest, an object appears in the sky that resembles somewhat the sparkling female comforter, here described as “soul-warmth expressed as a sky full of wonders for the delectation of our animals”.

Visual Art as Moral

Part of me wants to dig into all of the imagery mentioned so far; part of me frets that I’ve not described it enough so that unfamiliar readers can make use of what I’d say; part of me keeps hearing those who would say, “Jesus Christ, going on and on and on about a Frank cartoon.”[8]

I can answer the last point most easily: the crib-notes of the book itself already suggest one should read Woodring’s book as intending much more than a cartoon. So if you only read Congress of the Animals for the weird images and the emotional rush of this or that it fosters, then you have likely failed Woodring’s intention. Enjoy your life.

Meanwhile, because a picture says a thousand words, trying to control the meaning of those thousand words becomes a major challenge for artists. Vaughn-James obviously did not trust his images to say what he wanted and added a great deal of (often unfortunate) text. Woodring resorts to crib-notes—a wilier and less intrusive method but perhaps not always adequate.

Linking together the crib-notes and back text linked to imagery, as I did in the previous section, a large interpretative weight seems to swing in the usual earth/sex/down = bad and sky/love/up = good kind of discourse, symbolism, and imagery. The agency that makes one feel at home in the earth hinders the progress forward/upward to that soul-warmth expressed as a sky full of wonders (and romantic cohabitation); the vagina, “something too attractive to resist and too exalted to possess” must first undergo transformation or else, at best, it amounts to “a brief side trip down the endless corridor of that insanity that seems like grace”. Taken simply in these terms, this reiterates that banal trope: sex = bad, love = good, and perhaps that explains how such a promisingly weird book could come to such a banal and conventional end; because underneath all of the visual pyrotechnics, little else beyond the most banal of old hats lurks, mouldy.

Sad.

Usually, when one critiques worshippers of the gut, this amounts to railing against vulgar materialism, that kind whereby someone lives only by appetite, never seeing any of the higher things in life. By accident or not (and whether Woodring still intends a criticism, if different), he undermines this typical critique by making the vision of the “gut” have cosmic breadth. If the “brief side trip down the endless corridor of that insanity that seems like grace” amounts to or intends to point to the “fireworks” of orgasm—or, to put the point more decorously, sexual love—then it seems a misstep of metaphors on Woodring’s part to allow a sense of “peyote ritual” into his thematics.

I mean, if we (or Woodring) insists on reading the encounter with the gut-worshippers in a sexual sense—I haven’t included all of the readily available details one might further point to—that reading would still have to contend with the specifically transmutating “head” trip involved. This does not boil down to a “little” head trip, even when the gut-worshippers pull out part of Frank’s intestine and examine the head of it. Phallus as intestine suggesting sex = shit makes a simple enough equation, but even here Frank himself gets found wanting. If Frank (and Woodring) equate sex and shit (just to stick to that locution), it seems the gut-worshippers do not. And whatever they have wrong, still from the base of the statue that has a gut-worshipper’s face, Frank finds his crappy “transcendent love”.

When it comes to sex and love, patriarchy often loses its mind and its way. The saint/whore dichotomy of women (“too attractive to resist and too exalted to possess”) makes the whole thing too often in a fatuous desire to elevate the desire to fuck into something no longer even bodily and thus holy: “soul-warmth expressed as a sky full of wonders for the delectation of our animals”.

From the waist up, the gut-worshippers all seem men; what genitals they possess challenge categorisation. As such, I suspect they have a more interesting story to tell than the one Woodring did. Or that, as a temporary anthropologist amongst them (in his imagination), Woodring may have misread their traditions in light of his own saint/whore, mind/body duality. I suspect I’d find more stories about them, not filtered through that lens, telling

One reading of Oedipus in his confrontation with the sphinx and her riddle says his hubris rests in believing he got the answer right. In other words, had he remained blocked by the sphinx, he would have escaped his destruction. Frank, too, “answered the riddle” and received the tragedy of a happy ending resting on a deluded notion of love, as it were. Had he gone over into the heady depths instead or shown more fortitude (of spirit) with the gut-worshippers, he might have avoided that tragedy as well.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Woodring, J. (2011). The congress of animals, Seattle, WA: Fantagraphic Books, pp. 1–100.

[3] He says

[4] This reminds me that in Ridley Scott’s director’s cut of Bladerunner he removed the voice-over track. Apparently he’d never liked it or the idea of it.

[5] Or maybe Woodring did not compose the texts on the cover/dust jacket, but whoever did so offers an actual thematic deciphering of the images within the book—and lots of it, in small, crammed in text.

[6] Whether or not the reader then goes back and tries to find some necessity in the earlier parts of that quest. Here, the crib-notes at least give a plausible framing for what happens “at the beginning,” but this does not yet transform the merely quotidian (or random) events of that beginning into a plausible arc for the narrative overall. The dust jacket remains silent about why the moon-Punch attacks Quacky’s balloon, which leads to Quacky throwing overboard the croquet set Franks uses and which causes the destruction of his old house. Once Frank gets underway (narratively) to construct a new house, one may plausibly say both that the action follows from that and that “furnishing” the house with a romantic partner embodies a kind of “necessity” for such a new house. What croquet has to do with this, the dust jacket summary declines to say. Who cares, one might say. Sure. But the adventure of this post involves looking at the strategy of supplying your own crib-notes on a wordless book that claims, it would appear, to have a deliberate plot arc in it. Unless Vaughn-James’s book, which one may fairly accuse of mere randomness (or a degree of “allegory” too impenetrable to pierce), Woodring seems to have a story he wants you to understand, at least to some degree, and providing crib-notes serves that end. We can say as well, of course, that the crib-note’s silence about the beginning means something too. Of course, but this begs the question of how the crib-notes function at all. &c.

[7] More exactly, on the back of obstinate dubiousness’ disembodied face, Woodring includes plus-sign-like shapes. It seems as if he includes similar signs at the back of the gut-worshipper’s empty hole-faces.

[8] Obviously, better that one should go on wondering what this book intends than Gaiman’s vacuous Signal to Noise.

If to share a glance the voyeur must step out into the light, far enough at least so that he knows his presence has been acknowledged by the one watched, then the exhibitionist in kind must also cloak himself in shadow, far enough at least that he wonders if his actions may not have been acknowledged by the one watching.

WARNING: REPOST from previously; this remains still very long, and the Internet remains a busy place, so I give the conclusion first.

Sections:

  1. Conclusion
  2. Introduction
  3. Voyeurism v. Exhibitionism
  4. A Note on Narcissism
  5. Male Masturbation Education & Public Policy
  6. The Eros of Editing
  7. The Desire for Authenticity
  8. Solo Male Masturbation Videos
  9. Dependence, Independence, and Interdependence
  10. Masturbatory Intellectual Pornography

Conclusion

The dominant and legitimate emphasis on the self in self-pleasuring creates a sort of double-bind for its pornographic depiction.

To most “realistically” resemble masturbation as most of us are most familiar with it, the one masturbating would generally take no account of his or her surroundings or else the activity become an exhibition instead. But to make a technically effective depiction of this habit on film usually requires more of its participant than such absolute self-absorption.[1] How to capture this attractive and erotic solipsism authentically is perhaps the central challenge of a solo masturbation video.[2]

All the same, there still must be some degree of “outwardness” even beyond these technical details in order to reflect the specific kind of solo male masturbation video I have in mind for this essay. Insofar as fap-porn is itself already a kind of exception to the topos or premiss of pornography generally (because unlike other porn it only involves only one person), it should come as no surprise then that this rule-proving generic exception contravenes pornographic etiquette in important ways: in its breaking of the fourth wall, its habit of having the one watched look directly into the camera at the one watching, its capacity for including visible elements of the production itself in the frame without “ruining the illusion,” and so forth. Most importantly in this regard, as distinct from a typical disconnect between the viewer and the viewed that rehearses the (usually troubling) dependence on others emblematic of sexist objectification or the (potentially clinical) independence from others emblematic of clinical narcissism, solo masturbation videos in their best examples affect instead a conspiracy of interdependence, an eros of a shared glance, that models an affirming narcissism in the one watched that then becomes available to the one watching.

So what?

Insofar as some complain that masturbation is “not the same” as sex—that it is not an adequate or acceptable alternative to non-masturbatory activity—then this increases the risk that those who hold such opinions will go out into the world when they are sexually need to obtain the alternative they find more desirable, whether that means through prostitution, coercion, or finally rape. To the extent that this primarily involves males (insofar as rape and rape-like behaviors are a problem for women but a problem of men), then increasing the viability of masturbation (as an alternative to prostitution, coercion, or rape) has public safety and policy implications. To this end, videos showing a solo male masturbating that model this conspiracy of interdependence provide such an alternative, even for heterosexual males so long as viewing these videos is presented not as in terms of pornography but as something that could potentially improve their sex lives. The counterintuitiveness of this claim is answered by early data that indicates heterosexual males are willing to watch such videos and even sometimes have suggestions about their content.

Introduction

Elsewhere, I’ve defined pornography as a narrative[3] that enables wish fulfillment. That essay ranges widely over the topic trying to flesh outs that definition, but here I want to focus on a very narrow variety of (unabashedly sexual) pornography: solo male masturbation videos.[4]

In principle, there may be no difference between a straight male or a gay male masturbating on video, but it’s not that simple. Markets exist for “straights go queer for cash” long with other videos that pander to the gay male fantasy that any straight guy can, under the right set of circumstance, be persuaded to switch teams, even if only for one inning. But frequently enough, the fellow who switches teams shows far too much knowledge of baseball to be playing catcher for the first time, which can undermine the scene’s charm to an extent. And the reverse is true as well. Let it become too obvious that the relief pitcher is just in it for the money (an honest-to-god straight guy just trying to make a living), if his fastballs aren’t coming in hard and fast enough, the fans start booing. Given that nothing and everything on the Internet is true, we may forego any pretense of knowing whether the male masturbating in a video is “really” gay or something else, if this even matters. If someone wants to see a gay guy masturbating and a straight guy pulls it off, or if someone wants to see a straight guy getting whored and a gay guy manages to sell it convincingly, all that seems to matter is that a given piece of pornography works as a narrative that enables (in this case a sexual) wish fulfillment for the one watching.

What whets the whistle of one needn’t work for another. The issue here is not what may or may not be hot in a given piece of pornography, because Rule 34 assures us that any conceivable variation of a solo male masturbating will find its fan base—if only of one—somewhere. But part of framing this question is to not ignore entirely those females who might browse the solo male masturbator genre. The existence of such potential viewers means also that there may be males in videos who are, at least so far as the conceit of the video is concerned, straight and specifically masturbating for the delectation of women.[5]

It would be easier—and even seems to be logically defensible—to take no account of who might be watching any given video, particularly because visual pornography as a genre tends to rely heavily on the capacity of the spectator to be, precisely, outside of the scene, or at least at the most included in such a way that they are not made to feel they must take any responsibility for the events depicted. The perils of generalization run thick here, but in all filmed media—not just pornography—the gesture of looking into the camera in a way that seems to address the viewer tends to be handled very circumspectly.[6] One may speak of a kind of etiquette such that those in the world depicted must be at least agnostic, if not ignorant, of the eyes that have been, may be, will in the future be, or already have ogled them.[7] This does not mean one cannot break this hymeneal fourth wall in erotic ways (i.e., in ways that do not “ruin” the erotic topos of the scene for the viewer), and an extensive survey of pornographic filming would disclose what many of these are. To mention only one: the person being ravished by a cock in his mouth might look up along the belly of the cock’s possessor, but part of the implied angle here seems to be precisely that the viewer is looking at the scene through the cock owner’s eyes. This gaze of the one ravished seems directed to someone else, who we may or may not identify with in that moment, but most importantly the gaze is not at us. Thus, to the extent that watching pornography recreates the topology of voyeurism, while allowing a far more intimate intrusion of our voyeuristic capacities than we could ever image in person thanks to camera tricks and angles, the etiquette demands that we not be discovered. To be sure, a glance in our direction that threatens discovery—we kicked a pebble, we made a noise, we’re we actually spotted?—this might add erotic piquancy to our ogling, but to have confirmed outright our acknowledged presence tends to interrupt or puncture the developing orchestral swells of our arousal.

This is often not the case with the erotopia (the “erotic place”) of solo male masturbation videos.[8]

Voyeurism v. Exhibitionism

Some exceptions to this direct gaze must first be noted.

For the erotopia of the hidden-cam videos (whether real, contrived, or really contrived), for example, to maintain a strict voyeurism is de rigueur. The entire point of peeking in on some dude in something like public bathroom stall blowing off steam while other guys piss nearby, wash their hands, or eat their fast-food burritos presupposes absolutely the unwatchability of the guy lewdly groping himself. In these sorts of settings, the problems of a fixed-camera angle aside, any sort of acknowledgment of the watching lens of the camera amounts to an immediate and irrecoverable proof that the “hidden-cam” conceit is a complete sham.

Similarly, home-made j/o videos have their own whole ethos of lo-fi, which is not to say they must lack erotic vulgarity or charm. The comic aspect of such videos comes out best in the titles like “me jerking my dick in the tub” or some such, where the unvarnished egotism involved—that there’s really any public purpose in showing the world your jerk-fest from Ash Wednesday 2013—is adorably or pathetically too apparent. Needless to say, the (professional) etiquette of not addressing the camera is spectacularly (and innocently) violated in this type of j/o video over and over. It’s not simply that a viewer learns to make do or to overlook these amateurish gaffes or simply move on in the face of such a violation while relying upon the tremendous proliferation of such videos (often short) to find one that will do the trick for today here and now. The very abundance of this material—along with mechanisms on Web-sites that allow out of the semi-conscious horniness of hundreds of thousands of viewers to up-vote those videos that precisely best did the trick today and now—creates the circumstance where the individual viewer is able to discover what elements in such amateur productions do in fact do the trick. It may precisely be a glance, a groan, a look, a race, a cock size, &c. All of this being a marvelous display of whatever pejorative term women or critics might want to attach to this male impulse to show to the world his blurry puddle of semen coaxed onto his belly or fingers or keyboard or carpet, it’s equally clear that whatever voyeurism is involved in this for the viewer is of a different register. Here we are involved in theater, however low-brow, however off-off-off-off-off Broadway, however high-school garage band.

Theater (as a specular event) is the antithesis of voyeurism. However much an audience wants to demand that the fourth wall not be broken, there’s no plausible deniability that it can’t be. Of course, theater of yore (and still today in places) has a porosity of audience and performance that has nothing to do with the fourth wall. Audiences have exhorted orchestras to replay moments during debuts of symphonies, but much more basically, no one has ever pretended (at least not on the stage) that actors can’t hear the laughter and slapping and breathing of audiences. It’s something one usually needs to actively ignore, rather than having the luxury of really being ignorant of it, but the reciprocity of audience and performer also feeds feedback loops that call out changes in performance on actors’ parts. Voyeurism, by contrast, requires such ignorance, if with the qualifier that the threat of discovery may be titillating. And while amateur fwap-porn most assuredly must be ignorant of who specifically is watching, there is no question whatsoever that it is meant to be watched; the whole impulse behind showing me your orgasm is because you’re at least impressed enough with it that you think others should know about it.

Surely porn producers and sex-positive porn stars would agree with the critics that pornographic exploitation sux. And when one is confronted by the enthusiastic spectacle of half a trillion males of every shape and size who happen to own a Web-cam offering spurt after spurt for the appreciation of the world, we may have to not call such stuff pornography to protect any criticism of pornography from the massive evidence of such an enthusiastic counter-example. Such Toms, Dicks, and Harrys jetting onto thighs, pieces of black velvet, in Tupperware bowls, on pieces of fruit, or into cheeseburgers seem more to be exploiting the viewer than vice versa. We might erect a complicated heuristic apparatus to talk about how such males are ignorant of their own actions, are really harming themselves in some obscure social way, but all of this will be reprising exactly the same kind of (ultimately unconvincing, if not disingenuous) excoriations of sex-positive porn stars, who have risen up to tell the critics, “Hey, hold on a minute.” Perhaps just as the prudes of the world have grudgingly acknowledged to some extent that nudism is not sexual depravity, they may similarly need to come to terms with the fact that these exhibitionist displays are something other than pornography, for all of their genital focus. Youtube permits, for instance, the clip of a monkey who unambiguously (and completely) masturbates to stay on its site, even though there are no human equivalents of that video. Which is not to say that these exhibitionistic videos (even the one of the monkey) can’t be the sort of thing that gets you raring to go, but only to note a distinction between the on-average rigorous maintenance of the voyeuristic principle in pornography versus the dominant tendency of exhibitionism in home-made j/o videos.[9]

One other thing about home-made j/o. The overwhelming percentage of it shows only the penis being worked, and much of the remainder after that is headless. This is doubtless partly for the sake of anonymity. In these circumstances, the “look, it’s me!” factor obviously gets undermined, and certain small details can become very important, like the obviously tensing body as the fellow starts to cum. Most of the seemingly home-made j/o videos of these sort that show more than just the penis are videos that clearly have higher production values and are likely more professionally produced. These demarcate the border-cases between overtly professional productions, which would typically be obliged to “obey” the conventions of voyeuristic pornography in general, and patently amateurish productions, which enthusiastically and egocentrically make a spectacle out of someone’s more or less throbbing member.

A Note on Narcissism

The term narcissism now is pretty thick with negative connotations. In casual professionalism, rapists, for instance, get interchangeably deemed narcissistic (adjective) or narcissists (noun). This difference between adjective and noun is actually extremely important. A narcissist is an identity; it suggests that everything the person does falls under the rubric of whatever we would clinically call narcissistic behavior. Narcissistic (by contrast) is a type of behavior, not an identity. You might one day be a nice guy and the next do something narcissistic. The disingenuousness of using the terms interchangeably may be seen in the uselessly of the Christian injunction, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”

Where something so serious as rape is concerned, the inclination to love the rapist and hate the rape makes the point pretty moot. But the point here is not to defend rapists against charges of being narcissists or even narcissistic—not all rapists are, even if doxa wants to cast them in that light. And more will be said about narcissism later on, but an initial salvo of distinction is needed here first.

Clinical types may find it unbearable or impossible to imagine a narcissism that is not negative or sociopathic; that’s their problem, and its mine to the extent that I insist on using this word. I can imagine it’d be better if I didn’t. narcissism in its most clinical sense has the effect of a titanic disregard for others. The disregard is so complete that others do not even exist, so to speak. The narcissist goes about his or her way, plowing down people, buildings, institutions, traditions, along the way, and certainly never blinking, because she didn’t even notice her steamroller going over these things. It’s not anti-social, but non-social—and our current social life is actually marked by an increasing degree of narcissistic (adjective) behavior in the public domain.

The polite fiction—politeness being “the most acceptable form of hypocrisy” (Ambrose Bierce)—is that selfishness is wrong; those being selfish being “devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others” (Ambrose Bierce). We call those who are selfish bores—“someone who talks when you wish him to listen” (Ambrose Bierce)—and egoists—“a person of low taste, more interested in himself than me” (Ambrose Bierce)—and about this we are complacently positive—“mistaken at the top of one’s voice”. But whatever the hypocrisy and irony of how we criticize selfishness in the public domain (and narcissism is simply a psychiatric medicalization of an extreme form of this selfishness), the incursion of this critique into the realm of masturbation seems beside the point. And if not beside the point, then not something that anyone lives by, however much religious types or prudes or other meddlers work themselves up about it.

The word selfish has such conventionally awful associations—just try bringing it up around anyone who doesn’t like Ayn Rand or has a critique of libertarianism—that it almost seems necessary to simply audaciously declare that masturbation is the most selfless act one can commit. By Kantian ethical standards, which demanded that a thing be done solely as an end, never as a means, if it were to warrant the designation moral, then masturbation must be one of the most selfless acts of charity one can do for oneself. And for those who demand that charity be anonymous (otherwise the vanity of giving may kick in), the general secrecy surrounding masturbation guarantees this anonymity—it’s charity given that no one (but you) knows about.

This is to say, perhaps we should not allow the medical pathologizing of the term narcissism to be allowed where it does not belong, in the domain of self-pleasuring. Similarly also not the religious moralizing, which in any case has only succeeded in making people atheists (“between orgasm or God, I choose orgasm”), guilt-ridden (but nonetheless still masturbating), or tangled up in a pleasingly masochistic eros where one increases sexual tension by deferring masturbation only finally to succumb to the maddening demands of the glans or clitoris. This last is certainly a delicious erotic torture, and it’s actually the very thing that Osborne’s (1993) The Poisoned Embrace hopelessly overgeneralizes as the very foundation of Western civilization. That the air has been let out of the tire of this particular sexual vehicle is an important part of why, he suggests, Western culture no longer runs, but that’s a matter for elsewhere.

Later, I do take some pains to acknowledge a legitimately or at least potentially troubling aspect of what could be described as a narcissism involved in the voyeurism of consuming pornography. But just s no technology cannot be either abused or used, the question of whether pornography can only be a problem for the cognition of its user is hardly settled, especially since the convincing element of the feminist critique of pornography gets weird around the edges when you try to apply similar conclusions to dudes wanking on Web-cams for the general public.

Meanwhile, I will use the word narcissism in a not strictly negative sense. And the same with the term solipsism, which is (if you know the word intimately) is really the exact philosophical analog of the psychiatric sense of narcissism. Other (near or exact) synonyms include self-absorbed or self-involved. Moreover, although I typically say affirming narcissism throughout the essay to distinguish it from problematic narcissism, in the title of this essay “narcissistic” specifically refers to the affirming variety.

Partly it’s unclear why I feel I ought to make this clear. As if I should take seriously any of the hypocritical denunciations of narcissism, solipsism, or self-absorption that are rooted in the very thing they are being complacently positive about. The real danger is, precisely, that you would think I’m defending selfishness (narcissism, solipsism, self-absorption) in the social world where human negotiates with human daily. Criticizing the private domain according to the values of the public domain is just s misguided and destructive as the current (narcissistic) imposition of the private domain on the domain of the public. This all hinges on a perennial confusion of that distinction arising (in the standard critique or eulogy) from modernity: namely, the problematic interrelationship of the self in relation to society (and vice versa). Jung unambiguously negotiates a “middle way” through this:

As the individual is not just a single, separate being, but by his very existence presupposes a collective relationship, it follows that the process of individuation must lead to more intense and broader collective relationships and not to isolation … A norm serves no purpose when it possesses absolute validity. A real conflict with the collective norm arises only when the individual way is raised to a norm, which is the aim of extreme individualism … The more a man’s life is shaped by the collective norm, the greater is his individual immorality (Psychological Types, ¶758[10])

Only by my specific embodiment of ‘social values,” which may include my salutary opposition to the social values, is the health of the collective relationship itself ensured—not by the subordination of individuals to a perceived (or someone else’s) collective norm. If we wanted to, this argument actually gives a rational basis to the earlier seemingly farcical suggestion that masturbation is the most selfless act of charity one might perform. At this point, the distinction of a private and public domain begins to evaporate in a way that needs its own essay. For now, let’s just say that all supercilious moralizing about the supposed ills of narcissism, self-absorption, solipsism, or selfishness should be set aside as mere doxa. Whatever is problematic may (and will) be returned to alter, but for now, in a context of masturbation, feel free to wallow gloriously in the notion that such self-pleasure is not undesirable.

It’s what we all pretty much believe already anyway.

Male Masturbation Education & Public Policy

In one of his routines, comedian Louis CK describes male masturbation as something males need to do to keep from going berserk; females, by contrast, get out bath oils, love gels, and take hours. For males, it’s simply maintenance, opening the relief valve. This makes for decent starting point for further noting a difference in males who are queer-identified, although not even a sexuality distinction is ultimately necessary. If what Louis CK is saying is that women, in essence, make love to themselves when they masturbate, and men do not, then to the extent that homosexuals get identified with or linked to women might further suggest that gay males may have a greater propensity to “make love” to themselves when they masturbate as well. Or, it may simply be more true, that there are men and women alike who sometimes just quickly open the relief valve while at other times settling in for a longer work-out with themselves.

Reasonable as this “truth” might be, I think that it is more likely the case that straight males on average are less satisfied by masturbation than gay males. Despite the straight witticism, that every guy is at least gay enough to play with his own dick, the straight male’s relationship to his penis is perhaps less enthusiastic than the gay male’s. It seems reasonable—not to say that what is reasonable must prevail—that gay males have at least felt more driven to try to auto-fellate or even auto-sodomize themselves. Straight guys like to joke if they could suck themselves, they’d never go out—so until we have a serious (and not farcical) male version of Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, these details will be sunk in speculation. Which is also not to say that gay males never blow off steam in maintenance jerks—a spare five minutes before the bus comes? Plenty of time. &c.

My suspicion, from listening to males over the years, is that straight males tend not to make love to themselves. When I hear them lamenting that they want to get laid, I advise them, “Jerk off,” and am invariably told, “It’s not the same.” But of course it’s not the same; that’s often the joy of the stuff. It might be out of a grim sense of necessity, but most men who have been coupled for a while know that the whole rigmarole of sex with the spouse involves more effort than they’d sooner expend, and so masturbation becomes a decent second-best. In this coupled context, the single guy lament of not being able to get any doesn’t echo; “getting any” is already available for the married guy (in principle), but he comes to recognize that it’s more trouble than he wants to expend. In this context, masturbation is not such a terrible piece of settling. But for the single guy, masturbation “isn’t the same.” And it seems that this is because the male hasn’t learned how to really treat himself to a good time.

One can find on the Interwebs those kinds of advice columns to women about how not to get raped, except that they have been reconfigured as advice to males. The first of these is: if you feel like you might rape someone, don’t. Whatever “mere wit” is involved in this, the brilliance here is in reformulating the matter as something that perhaps males should concern themselves with, rather than finding ways to get women safely from point A to B in the world. I would imagine that places where public opinion holds masturbation in contempt will also be places where rape proliferates. Why? Because if masturbation “isn’t the same,” then one either has to resort to the dissatisfying (and humiliating) practice of masturbation, or one has to go out and get some, by hook or crook. Where prostitution is available, those with money might take that route. But if that isn’t available, then you have an increase in rape, whether that is of the violently criminal type outright or those grayer areas (“I bought you dinner, maybe I can get dessert”) and other forms of power-abuse to connive a sufficient miasma of consent to make prosecution unlikely. Louis CK brilliantly and bluntly pulls the curtain back on rape in either of these senses: how else are you supposed to have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with you?

If masturbation was something not held in contempt, as a last resort at best, then this would keep all of those hordes of males who are not actively and enthusiastic sexual predators from turning into half-hearted but nevertheless sufficiently driven pseudo-predators. This is not at all about whether you can boast because you “got some”; that’s a separate, additional issue. I’m speaking only to the purely managerial aspect of testosterone—the sort of thing that increases the chances of a male acting (out of desperation) in a sexually predatory way, but that also generates various paraphilias (or incest) because masturbation “isn’t the same”. It is no solution at all for feminists to guilt men as rapists or, echoing Nancy Reagan, that they should “just say no” to the unasked-for testosterone in their bodies. This presence in no way means that some female should compromise herself just because Johnny’s worked up, but if masturbation isn’t good enough, then the obvious solution is to make masturbation good enough. And whatever silly or embarrassed resistance males might mount against such an attempt, the bellowing orgasm they experience after being thoroughly fucked to within an inch of their lives will be the best refutation of that resistance. Figuring out what can bring them to that—a silk hanky to stroke with, nipple clamps, electrostimulation, rubbing their tail-hole with a finger or something else, screwing a jar of peanut butter, all of the above—may be at least as much of a good use of public effort, along with teaching women how to be safe, toward reducing sexual assault outright and all of the countless problems that arise as males try to connive women into letting them in what amounts to merely using them to masturbate.

This is not just a heterosexual male trend. 93.7 percent of males who are raped are raped by males. To contextualize this further from Schwartz & Rutter (1998):[11]

Lesbians report “physically or mentally coercive sex” more often than do gay men. One study found that thirty-one percent of lesbians reported forced sexual encounters versus twelve percent of gay men. (Scholars have presumed that lesbians and gay men disagree on what is considered “aggressive.” Often, lesbian reports contain statements of how they were emotionally abused as well as physically abused. Moreover, lesbians are often times more “sensitized” to “sexual coercion” and can more easily identify it, while gay men more often consider “coercion as fair play.”)

That “coercion is fair play” is telling enough, but for those males who are at least part of the time attracted to other males, if for them masturbation “isn’t the same,” then they will be more inclined to resort to rape or the “fair play” of coercion.

This relates to this post in that, rather than “jacking off,” “beating off,” “choking the chicken,” “slapping the ham,” “jerking off,” or any other of the curiously violent terms we tend to use for masturbation, we might teach males either to make love to themselves or, perhaps more popularly, to fuck themselves silly—in effect to leave them in the same kind of melting heap that a woman can get into after waves of crushing orgasms. Or, to put it in less epic terms, to get a guy to “play with” himself to the point of a genuinely pleasing and satisfying exhaustion after such play. This might well still be a maintenance wank, but whatever it is, it needs to be something that stands in lieu of pursuing the alternative, which is to find another human being to use as nothing more than a flesh-light.

The Eros of Editing

Within the context of the solo male masturbation videos per se (as opposed to the hidden-cam wank or the home-made j/o spectacle), two essential types can be identified.

In one, the “dude on the couch” variety, the distance between the apparatus of the production and the masturbatory act is not that great. Frequently, there are reduced production values—dicey lighting, poorly filmed, little editing, but most of all a lingering presence of the people making the video. Sometimes this becomes literally the voice of someone off-frame, commenting or given directions to the dude. The set is seemingly completely impromptu, probably in someone’s apartment. There may be snap photography going on, along with flash cubs. The camera rarely moves or changes angles, and if it does, it tends to resemble the kind of inept zooming in and out that anyone who has ever experimented with a camcorder has bumbled out. Very frequently, the actor (if he can be called that) seems overwhelmingly just some guy, with one major asset—the cute face, the large cock, the skinny frame. In other words, the whole thing has more or less the quality of a back-alley operation.

In the second, all of the above is much more polished. I could rattle off all the details again, making them more toward superlative, but the basic distinction is between the professionalism of this type and the comparative amateurishness of the other. But if there is a single-most critical difference, it is in the editing. When one encounters a single shot with no action except that performed by the subject, the whole narrative weight falls on the performer to provide. When editing is introduced, by contrast, an additional level of “story-telling” gets into the picture. The male may be approaching climax, which is (hopefully) interesting in itself, but several quick cuts from his face to his balls to his panting tummy, and then back to his hand as his glans swells slightly, and … This adds another level of action or narrative as well. But it also affects the viewer’s phenomenology acutely as well.

Tarkovsky, one of the world’s most celebrated filmmakers, used to time his shots to the tenth of a second with a stopwatch. One might think this is overdoing it were his films not so strangely affecting and effective. The point is that when there is a cut to a shot, we don’t know in advance how long it will last. If the camera or subjects are moving, we begin to soak in what is happening (if we are paying attention); we get into a kind of groove in the “world” of that shot, so that when the cut comes were are jerked or move out of that world to somewhere else. From then on, we live in each world knowing that it cannot last; it might be snatched away at any moment, whether or not it returns later.

Viewers of visual porn might be as much turned on as annoyed by this. In one sense, there seems to be a sort of implicit understanding that the editing we encounter in visual pornography is evidence of the filmmaker’s sexual preferences. That is, he or she showed us this, then cut to that, then thought something else was hot, then finally went back to that. Sometimes this seems teasing—all that beautiful cocksucking, and then a cheesy cut-away to the guy making porn-faces; “put the camera back on those lips” the crowd cries! And then the camera does, although whether the interlude of the face was welcome or not, ultimate, remains a matter of debate. With current day video-players, a viewer can simply loop that beautiful mouthing, or can get really ambitious and edit the video itself. It also may be that the filmmaker has a sense of the pull and pulse of porn editing and is going for that. Either way, editing puts “starts and stops” into the process of viewing that more amateurish, barely edited or slightly edited stuff does not.

To the extent that pornography is a (sexual) narrative that enables wish fulfillment, then the difference here between comparatively amateurish and comparatively professional solo male masturbation videos involves the adroitness of the narrative story-telling. If there is an overwhelming, if very enthusiastic, cinema verité in home-made j/o videos, the garage band energy of such stuff gets lost often in the too unconvincing dude on the couch video. This statement is relative, of course, and like most sexually aroused males, we might get impatiently opportunistic enough to “make do” with some bored, too scrawny twink desultorily pulling on his half-hard dick till he seems to almost fake an orgasm at the end. Nevertheless, once we get away from the goofy/erotic authenticity of the home-made variety of video and into something that has more of the markers of a production, then amateurish obtrusions often become deal-breakers. We have to browse on to find something better, have skip ahead (with our own on the spot editing), and so forth. To the extent that these kinds of lapses in technical details signal an inattention, a lack of care, an indifference, a mere venality in the production, this then can get into the topos of the fantasy and “ruin” the mood.

The Desire for Authenticity

The foregoing is not, like Aristotle’s Poetics, to prescribe the ideal solo male masturbation video. Neither is it to ignore that someone might find a seemingly bored twink the hottest thing ever, or vice versa, nor merely to get on the case of inept or lazy porn producers who can’t deliver the goods of an illusion. But rather only to try to contextualize under an audacity of attempted generalization what is at stake in solo male masturbation videos: authenticity.

Authenticity—at least for the moment—is a property in a solo male masturbation video that can only be ascribed or confirmed after the viewer ejaculates. More precisely, authenticity is that part of a work of pornography, as a narrative that enables sexual wish fulfillment, that enabled the wish fulfillment.

Obviously, this borders on a tautology and is certainly ex post facto. I want to leave that aside. It can be objected that equating orgasm with wish fulfillment is a dicey proposition. Certainly. Let’s leave that aside as well for the moment. And again, I might watch three video clips in succession just because it took me that long, so it may be purely coincidental that I ejaculated during the third clip. Quite so. And merely to take my orgasm as proof of authenticity begs the question. Quite possibly. Similarly, authenticity must by type and setting; yet surely some home-made j/o enthusiast has managed to “ruin the illusion” even of the undeniable reality of a web-cam hand-job. I don’t deny it.

If something less essentialist and mysterious might be offered for this property or value of authenticity, it is that we simply want to believe that the fellow we are watching to be enjoying himself.[12] The banal observation is that the cum-shot is the surety of this, which is why—sexy as it would be to see dude deep up in some guy’s ass, roaring like Dionysos as a bull in the finale of the Bacchae—he has to pull out (even if it is edited from a later or earlier go-round) and lather lad’s butt-cheeks or his rosy open lips with Ivory dish-soap. Authenticity, however, the work of pornography comes about it, is what persuades us that we rightly believe that the fellow we are watching is enjoying himself in the solo masturbation video.

Authenticity, like trust, then, is something we confer, not something that exists “within” the work of pornography. Factors in the work of pornography can make such ascription of authenticity difficult, such as the kind of “illusion-breaking” errors that (cheaply or inattentively produced) porn productions can commit, but to address every detail is impossible and unnecessary. It’s enough to say that any given viewer on any given day given any number of factors influencing attention, receptivity, mood, and the like, will respond in whatever way he does to a given work of pornography, and that where authenticity prevails, he will encounter a narrative that enables a sexual wish fulfillment, in this case namely the goal of orgasm. The eros of this can be quite literally the fact of that overweight, goofy, hairy home-made dude who seems, vaguely, disturbingly, erotically, like the monkey from the video I mentioned earlier—the sheer panting arousal on someone otherwise blacklisted for even thinking he should show up at the amateur strip night is, sweetly enough, enough (on the right day, for the right other guy).

And this is where I wonder, if somewhat abstractly, if there is a substantive or material difference for females who watch such videos. In the Furry fandom, there are a lot of female artists who provide gay male Furry erotica, &c. This could be simply writing to the market, but maybe not. Here are a couple of posts by women that speak to this:

[Pink Princess wrote here]: I’m a woman and I can tell you from experience I find nothing that can turn me on more than seeing my fiancé jerk off. Everything from facial expressions to sounds to movement is an experience like no other, and I am able to get off more easily while witnessing or thinking about him doing that to himself than in any other way. It’s incredibly appealing to see a man handing his equipment.

[on the same site: CheeseNip Studmuffin wrote: [Woman] probably do [enjoy watching a guy masturbate] but I’ve never done it before, I would be thinking why am I jacking off when she’s right here. … [Loves Men commented]: Exactly! Why does a guy need me if he wants to do it himself? Watching a guy jerk off himself makes him look too needy & desperate. It is a turn off & he should let me enjoy doing it for him. Believe me, us ladies like doing it for you.

[from another site, oneadvntursgrl wrote]: It is really hot to watch a guy masturbate…they touch themselves so differently than we touch them….also to tease them all over while they masturbate….then take over and finish the job for them, either orally or climb aboard and ride it out….whoo hoo!!! Ride that cowboy!!!

Informally breezing over a few sets of Internet answers to this question, the major consensus is yes women enjoying watching guys masturbate, but the context was almost always and only when they were with the man. So in these cases, watching a man masturbate was or turned out to be foreplay. And the primary negative response was, again, because (as CheeseNip and Loves Men agreed) it should have been foreplay. Nevertheless, oneadventursgrl says something very (sexy and) relevant on this point: “they touch themselves so differently than we touch them”. Also, of particularly note were the faces and sounds we make, particularly approaching orgasm.

One person informs me that he needs the sound on to respond particularly to solo masturbation videos. But these noises we make—our bull snorts or puppy whines—they tend to drift toward the raw an guttural or sweet and cute. They certainly seem involuntary, helpless, and a most obvious piece of authenticity—followed in short succession by the proof that all of that erotic noise wasn’t a joke or in vain. One might even wonder if the cum-shot (at least in certain strands of porn) isn’t itself the part that’s really wanted and that we’re just still riding on our own voyeuristic pre-gasm (if not coming right along) in co-goo. The expressions of course are related, but in pornography there isn’t necessarily a lens on the face at the magic moment, because catching the sperm coming out is so essential. You’ve not experienced betrayal until there’s a cut-away at the point of peak joy, only to cut back later and find evidence of it on someone’s tummy or rump. Who put that there? How do we know where it came from? Dudgeon. Spleen. Hell hath no fury like a voyeur denied.

This visual factor seems to readily add to a sense of authenticity; from the sites cited above, several women remarked on the various facial expressions made by their husband, fiancées, and flings. Similarly, a college colleague of mine once declared that he was gay because he loved seeing the look on guys’ faces when they came.[13] The temptation exists to see this in terms of a loss of control on the part of the male, and there is no reason why that cannot be the case. Perhaps more basically, no matter how desultorily the masturbatory lead up, no matter how bored the amateur or performer has seemed until the end, as that penultimate moment approaches, it because extremely difficult not to make some kind of noise, not to make some kind of face, not to in some clearly visible way betray or show forth that his body in hurtling into the grip of a sensation that every viewer is, in all likelihood, extremely familiar with already, if not about to be in very short order. Even in home-made j/o, where the bodily materiality of the total person may be at its most reduced, there is usually some evidence (prior to ejaculation) of that sweet spasm, whether in a shaking leg, a crinkling scrotum, a twitching penis, or (perhaps most sweetly) simply the tensing of the visible body and especially an increased breathing evident in the belly. Again, it seems almost persuasive that this moment is more where the focus of the viewer’s erotic peak centers, equally though with his own gooey denouement following the visual surety that the one masturbating has peaked.

Solo Male Masturbation Videos

Distinct from the theoretically inviolable voyeurism of hidden-cam videos and the inevitably theatrical exhibitionism of home-made j/o videos, the kind of play depicted in solo male masturbation videos that I am interested in here is notable for how it personalizes for the sake of the voyeur watching him the sense of any exhibition on the part the one masturbating. In other words, despite the typically assumed rigors of professionally produced pornography, the masturbator may frequently look directly into the camera. Done correctly—by which I mean when it continues to read as authentic to the viewer, whatever the viewer’s criteria tends to be for authenticity—this has the effect not of rupturing the eros of the illusion but of tending rather to increase it.

The platitude that male sexuality is genital and concentrated especially at the moment of orgasm contributes to the problem of masturbation being “not good enough” when orgasm becomes the end-all be-all. So if I focus for now at this assuredly peak moment, it is more because of the overemphasis it conventionally receives, in order to open up the field of play to other things. Specifically, it’s worth noting how eros-rupturing pornographic content can be “forgiven” in a sequence by the unmistakable proofs just preceding orgasm. Whether a viewer is willing to sit through ineptness to get to that moment is another matter, but this doesn’t lessen any the capacity to redeem mood-killing dullness that depicting the pre-cum-shot moment can manage. Similarly, even the most venal faker on-screen (if he’s going to manage to finish at all) probably has a few moments caught on film where he “gets into it”—he may start rubbing his belly, squeezing his testicles, looping finger around his tail-hole. Here again is the vaunted evidence of authenticity, made perhaps sweeter in these kinds of cases because—despite every effort by the performer to be bored and not “into it”—he wound up “into it” after all, more or less against his will, so to speak.

What all of this points to—in the cum-shot itself, the sequence leading up to the cum-shot, and any tittles of evidence that belie a masturbator’s shift from mechanically going about his business to “getting into it”—is a radical focus on the star himself. The moment of orgasm is famous (or notorious) for being world-usurping; in the moment of it, nothing else even can get into one’s attention. But all of these moments reproduce this on a more or less less intense scale. That we involuntarily close our eyes, not even intentionally to shut out the world—a sneeze similarly forces us to close our eyes, whether we want to or not—but because whether we want to or not, whether we mean it or not (and there’s really very little in the universe at that moment that makes us want to resist it), suddenly we are entirely and helplessly self-focused. We are, in probably a completely literal way, self-absorbed.

This, of course, is the root of masturbation as the most colossal selfishness, although I think it has to be allowed that in these moments—either of orgasm specifically or the kind that make us involuntarily moan, close our eyes whether we want to or not, and so forth—the involuntary character of them show that holding our ego accountable at that moment is not quite on point. We did, of course, bring ourselves to that moment—we did step off the cliff, but now that we have, everything else is the will of gravity, not us.

Now, besides these strictly involuntary moments—that we might be embarrassed by if anyone else saw them, that women on Web-sites are so adorable to behold in their male partners—the tenor of masturbation in general is toward this kind of “inward” self-absorption. More precisely, to the degree that such an emphasis is lacking, the more likely that the wank-session will be “not the same”. This self-absorption does not in any way need to be only soft, gentle, self-lovemaking—it could be rough, violent, disgusting, a veritable festival of evil that afterwards leaves you not only panting but appalled at what you did to yourself. Excellent. All that matters is that you fucked yourself (or something more romantic, if that’s your inclination).

This emphasis might be present from the very beginning of a solo male masturbation video or it might only show up toward the end, whether the male intends for it to happen or not. But this radical emphasis on self-absorption distinguishes this type from other pornography.[14] However “selfish” a male might be in gay or straight porn with others present, however self-involved he is, even the moment when he proves he’s been enjoying himself, his cum-shot is implicitly in some kind of relationship with anyone else present. In the moment of orgasm per se, he most assuredly attentionally implodes, but it is only for him in that moment that the “world” of the pornographic event is annihilated—for the others present, there is no discontinuity. Of course, for the viewer, his pristine moment of self-absorption may remind us of solo masturbation videos and could be hot for that very reason, but our personal take on the scene at that moment doesn’t change the network of limbs and orifices that has otherwise populated the world. However hard he might wish it were otherwise, his peak moment at that moment is also still for others as well as himself. Not so with the solo masturbation video.

By saying this, I’m not ignoring that we are there at that moment, watching, to say nothing of the whole battery of film crew, but something interesting happens with even these other presences that seems to be unique to solo male masturbation videos and an exception to the normal run of pornographic etiquette.

This emphasis on self-absorption—this gorgeous infatuation with one’s self-pleasure over the course of masturbating, which necessarily kicks in to some degree as the moment of orgasm approaches—provides a bedrock of authenticity that can overcome perhaps every variety of eros-rupturing distraction. This appears to be exactly how the most bored college jock jacking for money turns suddenly into an object of peak erotic interest for the viewer as the jock sidles toward orgasm—as he is driven, involuntarily, into his own pleasure helplessly and starts … oddly pawing his balls, or twisting his nipple, or rubbing his ear; whatever it is that is the specific topos of his sexual pleasure that he’s maybe never shared with anyone before, now become visible for our voyeuristic gobbling down—the authenticity of this erases all of his previous errors (and the producer’s errors). And the more that this emphasis on self-absorption is there from the beginning, the more one can “get away with” in the video.

In this kind of circumstance, even the on-screen presence of the filming crew may not disrupt the “fantasy” of the scene. But I should probably confess, I am thinking of one solo male masturbation scene specifically for this example. In Bel Ami’s (2000) Team Play, a scene “deleted” from the movie but still available, features a solo by Lee Taylor. The scene is set on a well-lit set, with all of the typically high production values associated with the Bel Ami studio, and includes lots of different angles, is obviously still in a state of rough-edit, sometimes shows a photographer in the frame taking still photos, more than once emphasizes Lee’s radiantly beaming smile straight into the camera at the viewer, and even footage of the scene as seen through a video-camera’s playback window. From the very first moment, it begins with Lee touching himself and establishing eye contact with the viewer; he massages himself through his white pants, removes them, and is next seen putting his thumb in his mouth and rubbing his beautifully formed pecs with an appreciation that seems wholly consonant with and justified by his physique. Although there are “slack” moments over the four or so minutes of the scene, when Lee lavishes attention on himself, he does so lavishly, almost always occupied with one hand on his erection, the other touching himself in that way that fascinates oneadventursgrl an making a wide range of expressions, including grinning, licking his lips, snarling in his arousal, &c. Throughout the scene, the sense of a appreciation for his own body and the pleasure he can call forth from it, quite apart from the presence of anyone else around him or from any moment when he pauses for still shots by the photographer, serves more to enhance than detract from its erotic quality.[15]

I distinguish this kind of self-absorption from the self-aggrandizement of home-made j/o. However humble or self-effacing the latter might attempt to be, its impulse is “outward” and says, “Look at me.” By contrast, no matter how proud or self-assured the former might be in fact, its impulse is “inward” and might happen to notice, “Oh, you’re looking at me.” There is a tendency to make self-involved and narcissistic synonymous, but the narcissist arrives at that by negating any presence of others, while self-involvement does not need to resort to such gestures. Partly it is the context that makes this possible: this is, after all, a solo masturbation scene—by convention, there is no one else to take account of. If we imagine Narcissus in point of fact alone and gazing at his reflection, falling in love with it, then he’s hardly (or at least not problematically) being a narcissist at that moment. The person who masturbates to pictures of himself or herself similarly is not (at least problematically) being a narcissist at that moment.[16] Home-made j/o porn might be called narcissistic in the negative sense in that it (if humbly) acts entitled to put itself on display—and such narcissism might well prove fetching or charming whether the audacity of the display is out of sync with any earthly reason for it in the first place.[17] By contrast, the narcissism of the kind of self-absorption I am describing is not negative, at least to the extent that it belittles no one in the process.

Because this kind of solo masturbation scene doesn’t mind being looked over, this (I suspect) is why the details that would otherwise tend to be eros-disrupting do not interfere with it. But not just for that reason; it is also that Lee, from the very beginning, establishes an uninhibited sensuality with himself. But this is misleading. I’m tempted to say he’s shameless, or unashamed, or unself-conscious but this implies he’s taken an attitude of disregarding all the cameras, and film crew, and past, present, and future viewers in the room with him. It is true: one might masturbate in private with a feeling of shame, but probably most people get themselves into whatever private cubby they need and then enjoy themselves, with expending a thought pro or con about anyone watching. Another person who watched this scene, in fact, insists that Lee is “holding back,” and so for that viewer Lee is not quit so shameless or unashamed, perhaps.

However, the scene gets an additional edge precisely when Lee looks into the camera, on two occasions to break into a large grin, particularly at the end, after he is done. The first shot of the scene is from a middle distance, slightly framed as if we are indeed peeking in an down at Lee from a height. He is shirtless, but has white pants on, and is massaging his pecs and groin alike. And then, like a properly interested voyeur, the shot moves in on a close-up centered on his belly, so that his hand on his chest above and below on his groin are still both visible. The next shot cuts to his torso and face, and after a moment, he barely looks up into the lens, giving a bit of a crooked grin of acknowledgment. Having acknowledged the presence of the viewer, the next shot shows him undoing his pants. Things proceed from there.

How such things “read” may remain a matter of endless debate. I suggest that here an immediate ethos of “narcissism overlooked” gets established, one that only says, “Oh, you’re looking,” but neither stops nor does anything else for that reason, but goes on with whatever was going to happen. We are like the sun at this point, shining down on the golden youth who is enjoying himself—on a movie set as it turns out, where he just as erotically goes on with himself, no matter other presences, like photographers, film crews, cameras, and whatnot. I will even go so far as to note that that first look he gives to the viewer, out of the corner of his eye barely, with barely any attention really, but a smile nonetheless, happens also to be one of the least aesthetically effective moments for model, and so even in this moment of theoretical bonding between viewer and viewed, the viewer is not as encouraged to “keep watching” than if (upon seeing the model’s face) the response was more, “Holy Adonis, he’s unbelievably beautiful.” This moment, which is likely completely accidental on the film-maker’s part, nevertheless helps to create a circumstance where the viewer finds it easy enough to himself remain diffident (at this point) about the whole proceeding. In a Bel Ami context, notorious for its ridiculously ideal males, in this first close-up of Lee, he is not shown to his best advantage (and the viewer already knows this is a deleted scene as well), so it really almost is literally the case that this solo scene is not being watched. And that (so to speak) frees up Lee to go about his business as if no one was watching.

So, he lets us know he knows we’re watching, but this has no effect pro or con on how he proceeds. And the range of what he does far exceeds what one usually sees: he puts his thumb in his mouth and rubs it over a nipple, he massages his chest in practically every shot, plays with his ass, on another occasion licks his tongue, licks his lips, plays with his scrotum, rolls his balls in his fingers, strokes his belly, thrusts his hips up into his hand as he masturbates, plays with the base of his penis, digs his fingers into his thigh, uses both hands on his cock, keeps his eyes closed almost the entire time, pushes up against his taint with his fingers, licks his shoulder, and eagerly watches himself masturbate at one point. All of this in 4’46” as an exemplary case of affirming narcissism.

The idea that there could be such positive and desirable narcissism points, I think, to a resistance to masturbation in general that has several inputs. Such pleasure that needs no one else—taken to its logical extreme—gets imputed with the death of the species; although one might recall Khepera, an early 1st Dynasty Egyptian Creator-Deity:

I had union with my hand, and I embraced my shadow in a love embrace; I poured seed into my own mouth, and sent forth from myself issue in the form of the gods Shu and Tefnut.

Here is a generative, affirming narcissism of the most unambiguous sort,[18] so it is interesting to note (from here) the following as well:

Camille Paglia says E.A. Wallis-Budge (The Gods of the Egyptians, London, 1904, pp. 297) calls the Khepera masturbation myth ‘gross,’ a ‘brutal example of naturalism’ that ‘can only be the product of a people at a low level of civilization’. It must be a survival of one of the ‘coarse habits of the predynastic Egyptians, that is to say, one of the indigenous African tribes from which dynastic Egyptians were partly descended’

Much else could be said about this, but here I only want to emphasize the elaborate roots standing in opposition to masturbation, that make it primitive, gross, uncivilized, a coarse habit, and (in its racist implications) something only Africans do.

In the idea of self-embrace (whether self-love or self-fucking) as an affirming narcissism, anti-masturbators take not just the continuance of the species (or society) as standing at risk. However, when we believe we may only be loved (or fucked) through the touch of someone else, this makes us hierarchically dependent on others, and this has far, far-reaching consequences: that I cannot support myself, except that I work for someone else; that I cannot forgive myself of my “sins” except through the intercession of someone else; that I cannot be satisfied with what I have, except that it is more than my neighbors, &c. The number of people who are in shitty, banal, or horrific relationships simply because they cannot feel love or loved of themselves or from themselves is already argument enough that more unions with hands in a self-embrace might not be a bad idea. That some males cannot be sexually satisfied, except by using someone else as a masturbation tool (even if that means resorting to rape) obviously applies here. The goofy, crass, or luscious narcissism of home-made j/o porn only exists, as seen, when an audience does (or might) see it; it cannot stand to be overlooked. The narcissism of self-absorption, by contrast—the type exemplified in Lee Taylor’s solo scene—doesn’t require being seen and doesn’t mind being looked over.

In a straightforward and pedagogic way, then, the affirming narcissism of this scene provides an almost under-five-minute visual training manual for those males who might think masturbation “isn’t the same”—or at least a template for creating a Sex Ed video for use even with or by straight males. Presented as such—and certainly not as a piece of pornography—I suspect there would be less opposition to watching such a thing than one might expect. The point of doing so, of course, would be not simply to exhort but to demonstrate to males that masturbation not only isn’t an inadequate alternative but also is a much better alternative than becoming a rapist of some sort or another.

Dependence, Independence, and Interdependence

Throughout the foregoing, authenticity is assumed to be a central property of successful pornography, i.e., narratives that enable sexual wish fulfillment. Understood narrowly, wish fulfillment can simply be the final pleasure of orgasm, whether or not one either wishes in some way to engage with the model in the pornography or adds further erotic daydreams to what one watches. The affirming narcissism of the scene with Lee Taylor, however, also shows how the goal of pleasure can be spread out over the entire duration of masturbation, whether this gets framed as making love to oneself, fucking yourself silly, or something else. This kind of solo male masturbation video is unique in that the affirming narcissism of masturbation generally allows models not only to “break the fourth wall” (to look directly into the camera) in a way that otherwise would violate typical pornographic etiquette but also to acknowledge the presence of others (the viewer, the film crew) without turning the depicted scene into a self-aggrandizing (home-made) j/o session. To acknowledge these others (even in the frame of the scene) does not transform the event into a non-solo scene, partly because however many people are watching, the viewer is simply one of that crowd, but more precisely because the “inward” orientation of the act does not change whether someone else is watching or not; in a rather literal sense, the performer is never performing, because there is no one else to perform for. Certainly these others present might prove eros-disrupting for some viewers, but this genre of pornographic depiction is structurally able to admit the “illusion-producing” portion of pornography into the viewer’s consciousness in a way (at least in principle) that does not ruin the mood.

But all this being said, authenticity may not be a central value. Authenticity involves having the assurance that the model is enjoying himself (i.e., is not simply performing) the whole time and not only at the moment when it is inevitable. One could imagine instead a viewer who is more interested in ensuring he is enjoying himself the whole time and not only at the moment when it’s inevitable. Here, the continuously desired trait is hotness, whatever that consists of. Allowing for this variance of tastes and moods, home-made j/o porn may frequently have just what the viewer needs. [19]

The danger, if you will, of depicting affirming narcissism in pornography is in its confirmation bias for the viewer. To the extent that the voyeur attaches his or her own pleasure to the “fact” of being allowed to delectate the sexual display unmolested, this then might veer off eventually toward the sort of clinical narcissism that is problematic in many ways, including the etiology of the narcissistic rapist. A similar danger exists for home-made j/o in that it can confirm the bias of the viewer’s other-dependency. Here, the consumer attaches his or her pleasure to reinforcing a pattern that elicits or demands the obedience of the Other, or that the Other be a good sport and sexually service him or her, or barring all that, to resort finally force outright to secure sexual gratification, which has obvious implications for rape and rape-like sexual behaviors by people in the real world.

In particular, the extent to which pornography reinforces Other-dependency (or more simply, sexual dependence) in a context where masturbation therefore becomes “not the same” may be the most crucial nexus in play here. It has to be remembered that this article addresses masturbation videos specifically and not all pornography. It is easy enough to imagine a critique of pornography—its exploitative aspects aside—as helping to reinforce if not even create undesirable patterns of sexual behavior, whether in the voyeur-turned-sociopath or consumer-turned-rapist. It may well be that for certain kinds of viewers the affirming narcissism described above leads to a dehumanizing independence vis-à-vis other real human beings. It might seem that this kind of thing should be called objectifying, but this is not correct. For a clinical narcissist, as I mean it, objects do not exist; there are only reflections, which shows the correct emphasis on the mirror-like reflection of the pool in the original myth of Narcissus. It is the consumer who objectifies, who demands that the object function as the owner’s manual says it does, or else the object is deemed defective and therefore irritating or enraging. For the voyeur, unexpected behavior is disturbing—hence the pornographic etiquette not to disturb the illusion of the production, as an interruption to one’s sexual reverie.

So the consumer, in clinical mode, becomes other-dependent and thus does or threatens violence to the object when frustrated or aggravated; and the voyeur, in a clinical mood, becomes other-independent and harms others (ultimately) by not taking them into account at all. As outliers of the more typical run of things, these extreme situations serve more s warnings of worst-case scenarios than bases for approaching or assessing pornography in general, but it also means that many people in the real world spend a lot of their time having to deal with less pathological varieties of these patterns—patterns which could be laid at least partially at the feet of pornography itself. Moreover, whatever negate patterns or valences that get into this on the part of women who consume this pornography, it hardly seems arguable that the overwhelming percentage of examples come from guys.

Affirming narcissism makes, then, for an unusual genre of solo male masturbation video. Without ignoring its potential to particularly reinforce problematic patterns in certain kinds of viewers—no technology, no cultural production, cannot be put only to good use—its capacity at least in principle to break the fourth wall without destroying the eros of a scene, a breaking that establishes a conspiracy of interdependency between the viewer and the viewed, offers perhaps the only case of pornography that models an erotic alternative to the “masturbation is no good” trope that sets up males to become rapists or para-rapists.

Breaking the fourth wall—specifically the establishing of direct eye contact between the viewer and the viewed—can under the right circumstances be carried off successfully in just about kind of pornography, maybe even in hidden-cam clips. But almost invariably, such direct eye contact functions either in an exhibitionist way (i.e., “Oh, I see you looking at me there, let me put on a show for you”) or to signal the helplessness of the one being watched with respect to the gaze of the one watching. (To be clear, most direct eye contact reads simply as, or actually is a, production or performance mistake.) Overwhelmingly, the one doing the looking is the “bottom” in the scene. In heterosexual or homosexual pornography alike, whatever the complicated relationship of the viewer to the other man in the video who is actually doing the doing, whether his penis becomes my penis, whether I envy what he has an can do, or whatever, the look of the Other occurs in the whole context of her or his solitary status compared to “all of the rest of us”. It establishes an ethos where the look of the Other either confirms or denies his or her obedience to my desires (making me dependent on them) or confirms his or her reflection of me so that I can go on and get mine (independently of any consideration of him or her).

No doubt, that’s too brief. In the solo masturbation video, the one watched may be so magnificently self-absorbed that anyone else (including me) ceases to exist—if only at the moment of orgasm, or the moments just before it. But this excessive emphasis on independence, of absolute non-dependence upon others, which is a hallmark of real-world masturbation, can be turned into interdependence by a look.

Before, I proposed fantasy as a liminal genre between erotica and pornography. In a similar way, perhaps there is something between voyeuristically oriented and exhibitionistically oriented pornography that, just as delicately as fantasy or Todorov’s sense of the fantastic, can lapse into an over-emphasis on independence in the former or an over-emphasis on other-dependence in the latter. Once a person in a masturbation video acknowledges the viewer, if the performance changes in a way that seems directed more toward gratifying the viewer’s (rather than the performer’s) desires, then this suggests a lapse into the exhibitionistic. Or if the glance turns out to be so passing that it never comes up again, so that the connection it (seemed to) propose evaporates and becomes rather more like something that was accidental, then this suggests a lapse back into the voyeuristic. When, on the other hand, the pleasure is unambiguously all for the one viewed even as the presence of the viewer has been acknowledged, then we can hover in a liminal zone that neither gets lost in the reflection of the voyeuristic nor gets dominated by the theatricality of the exhibitionistic.[20] As of yet, this middle common ground has no name.

Albeit in a fictional setting—all cultural productions lack “reality” in this sense—this kind of solo masturbation video (I’m deliberately leaving out the word “male” for now) offers the eros of a shared glance—that is, the performance of the narrative of a shared glance. Whether the performance is effective or well-received is not to the point. One might not “feel” the conspiracy of interdependence; or one might, by very selective attention, manage to make a scene with multiple people in it generate such a conspiracy of interdependence with one of the performers, but this would be only to validate the generality of this concept.

There is no principled reason why solo female masturbation videos cannot accomplish a similar conspiracy of interdependence, but the patriarchal arrangement of our culture creates immediate and considerable obstacles. It is difficult to find female masturbation videos that are not conventionally exhibitionistic in all the ways one might image: “I wanna do it for you,” “Nn, are you liking that?” &c. And on the flip-side, males may be so trained to be various (other-dependent) consumers of porn that there’s a whole gravity to drag them into the kind of aggressive voyeurism that women have historically turned prim noses at. Nor is there any guarantee that solo male masturbation videos can or will automatically dodge this male socialization either, but the obstacles may not be as severe, at least if the existence of Lee Taylor’s scene is any indication. The obvious source for female versions of the same type would be lesbian pornography.[21]

The designation “lesbian” may only be necessary to the extent that patriarchy tends not to recognize a market for affirming narcissism in solo female masturbation videos generally. In the same way, one might be inclined to believe that solo male masturbation videos by gay males will be a more plentiful source for affirming narcissism. Patriarchy argues against this. Although chastity belts are a fashion known on both sides of the sexual fence, it is telling that in the 19th century there were medical devices invented to masturbate women to orgasm while boys had their genitals locked in cages to prevent them from self-abuse.[22] If female masturbation has been less historically deemed a problem, this is likely more due to patriarchal indifference to it. (Amongst the Yanomamo people of the Amazon, who are otherwise a sexually promiscuous but have highly virulent attitudes toward women), female masturbation can be punished by death.) Overtly, all this fuss and prohibition—Oscar wile got in trouble while in prison because the Warden detected the smell of semen in his cell—occurs because male masturbation is widespread. And so the problem is less that it occurs and more that anyone would know about it. And so just as the Southern gentleman highly prized his octoroon mistress and ostentatiously kept her, so also is male masturbation a numinous principle for all times—as Khepera demonstrates, and which Wallis-Budge of course feels compelled to condemn for letting that cat out of the bag into the public eye.

This doesn’t mean that male masturbation is merely a private affair or a secret affair—it’s a magical affair, a sacred affair, the very world-creating act itself. Or, more precisely, there is a tension in patriarchal culture to draw this “logical” conclusion, just as it only makes sense, in a culture that devalues women, that men should seek sexual congress with their equals, i.e., other men. This is still most obviously evident in the ways that ancient Greek culture gets constructed and used to justify our own civilization and bad habits, and this is why the passive sexual male, the bottom, gets all of the opprobrium he does, because he is linked to the devalued part of the culture, women. One hears any number of stories about boys experimenting with boys during puberty; in some cultures, this stuff is tacitly or covertly encouraged, s it helps to avoid illegitimate or premature family-making. But these positive images, under the plausible deniability of “innocence” or exploration or sheer pragmatism, has a limit as one’s age advance and also must never get wrapped up in “femaleness.”

One could go on forever with the details of this. Here, the “problem” of male masturbation is only when it is too misdirected, i.e., when you become one of those desiccated compulsive masturbators who hasn’t—or isn’t showing any sign of ever—depositing his seed in a family way in an appropriate vessel. For the captain of industry, who has a couple of kids not just under his belt (in his balls) but in the care of his wife, there can be little doubt that he might have union with his hand unproblematically, and with all coronated sacred significances intact. Except that in our more secular age, it’s more the pragmatic venting of the relief valve, as Louis CK puts it. Consequently, any guy jacking off on video has a nimbus of “queer” about him. Never mind the presumption that women would watch (straight) men masturbate, that pornography is watched overwhelmingly by men means if you bet off, you can’t be so stupid as to not think it’s going to be men mostly jerking along with. The stereotype, in any case, is that homosexuals are sex fiends, so of course they can’t stop themselves from jerking off—a doxa that suffered a setback in the tidal waves of semen spilt on behalf of the world by every (straight) Tom, Dick, and Harry who could figure out how to set up a web-cam.

It seems, in fact, something of an unacknowledged open secret. Numerically, it hardly seems possible that all production and consumption of home-made j/o porn is only for non-heterosexual males. This is part of what convinces met that all males—if presented with the opportunity in the right way—would not be averse to watching another male masturbate. And in some way, I think patriarchy makes this so. Khepera notwithstanding, the masturbating male is the (ultimate?) image of sexual freedom. Solo male masturbation videos leverage that (secret, or not so secret) emphasis, but when coupled with affirming narcissism, the performance of the shared glance, the conspiracy of interdependence, then this offers unique opportunity in pornography to establish or reinforce an alternative pattern to the ones that take us into criminal or moral waters.

It doesn’t need to be straight or gay or otherwise. Just because for gay males that moment from early adolescence when they were in the tent with a male friend, and there’d been all that joking and stuff, and suddenly a kind of reverential hush fell over them both, and soon the low panting of young men taking care of their desires on their own under the fabric of their sleeping bags fills the air till they both finished—trying to time it to come together, not because either’s necessarily turned on by the other but because to be the one that still has to finish after his friend has could get weird or something—just because that’s a memory 35 years later that the went-on-to-be-gay one in the tent still returns to when he needs something to fantasize about doesn’t mean it wasn’t a conspiracy of interdependence for the other guy too. It may not have left anything like the same kind of impression, if any impression at all, but at the time he didn’t dive out of the tent once events took the turn that they did. Perhaps, if nothing else, this example (that involves three tents) points better than anything so far to the erotopia and conspiracy of interdependence present in the kind of solo male masturbation video explored in this essay.

Masturbatory Intellectual Pornography

I started out on this essay to avoid a major digression in another one—an essay where I sought to describe intellectual pornography. The term pornography itself proves problematic; Ooterhuis (2012) gets toward this when he writes, “Recent public debates about the presumed ‘sexualisation’ and ‘pornographisation’ of society do not so much focus on the pleasure dimension of sexuality as on its dangers, in particular for the young” but this is largely because of, as Oosterhuis (2012) traces, the linking of personal identity to sexuality that is defining of sexual modernity itself. Jung (1981)[23] may have observed, “Before Freud nothing was allowed to be sexual, now everything is nothing but sexual” (84), but Oosterhuis (2012) shows how Krafft-Ebing and his immediate successor Albert Moll were central to and earlier in constructing this sexual modernity (for we euroamerican types).

With sexuality made central to identity, then, the use of the phrase “intellectual pornography” lands me squarely in a discourse whereby whatever the phrase might be or mean, I feel obliged to think about it in sexual terms—or, more precisely, to know that that is where the center of gravity about any such term will tend to live, however I then try to resist or move away from that. And insofar as I guessed (rather arbitrarily) that intellectual pornography at least when practiced by males[24] would be marked as masturbatory, that became my occasion for trying to characterize pornographic depictions of (male) masturbation in general. From an understanding of avowedly sexual (male masturbation) pornography, I planned then to sniff out (masturbatory male) intellectual pornography.

This essay roughly delineates three classes of male masturbation video: the voyeuristic (where the male is unaware he is being watched), the exhibitionistic (where the males assumes he at least could be watched), and the terminologically still-unnamed variety that enables the erotopia of the shared glance, the conspiracy of interdependence.

All (pornographic) consumption phenomenologically involves only me. There is no interaction between me and the person who was recorded in the pornographic depiction. So in this respect, to speak of exhibitionism has false ring to it. Because, whereas in the real world I cannot “turn off the monitor” if an exhibitionist decides to flash me, if I similarly feel any kind of helplessness or paralysis when facing a computer monitor, it’s at least a difference in kind it would seem. The fact that the brain does not distinguish between memories of dreams and memories of the “real world” puts a kink in this, and it may be the most important kink of them all. Nevertheless, it is not just some “merely subjective” feeling of paralysis or helplessness that prevents someone from turning off the monitor any more than it is some “merely subjective” impression of voices in your head telling you to kill people or to smoke another cigarette. Jung’s theory of possession at least has the advantage of properly “carrying” this sense of an overturned will when we are dominated by things that make us experience a feeling of helplessness, however others looking at us may feel about the matter or say “it’s all in your head.”

So the term exhibitionist is not inappropriate for describing the perception of the experience of witnessing home-made j/o porn. The fairness of this is found in the counter-example: to accuse people who are looking at their computer screens as being the equivalent of the voyeur who creeps around people’s back yards to peer into windows must be absurd. If we get to be charged with voyeurism for such looking, then on the same grounds we get to charge the exhibitionist for raping our eyes without asking if we consent to whatever he’s up to. The even larger point to all of this is that not everyone who views such exhibitionism responds to it as exhibitionism. The clinical narcissist (for example) acknowledges no one but himself, so the most fantastically exhibitionistic display we might imagine will still arrive in the narcissist’s consciousness as a reflection of himself. And similarly, for the most compulsive exhibitionist who can do nothing but construct his victim so out of whole cloth that they (almost literally) seem to him to be demanding he show them his cock, no amount of reflective solipsism will ever read to him as anything but an absolute confirmation of his own desires. To the extent that any counter-factual data even can get through, it’s liable to spawn frustration (not aggravation), disappointment, and/or violence.

All of this complicated intrasubjective mess is somewhat circumvented by the solitary context of masturbation, but all of the above could still be dragged into a consideration of intellectual pornography. When one reads a book, there’s a stupidity and a truth in claiming it “does something” to us or that we “engage it”. Similarly, there’s certainly a value in holding off on imputing Satanic intentions to an author (or pornographer) as a matter of first resort and to entirely excuse the author (either of credit or opprobrium) seems in the last resort untenable as well.

So with all of this effort to fairly and adequately frame the matter hopefully addressed, I propose to characterize at least the three main types of masturbatory (male) intellectual pornography.

Exhibitionist intellectual pornography aims its cum shot in your eye. That has to be said right off. It cums on your face. It knows you love it, why else are you here? The facial cum shot is a phenomenon in itself. One can almost always tell when the recipient isn’t looking forward to it, but it’s required of the form, just as we will keep reading a piece of intellectual pornography, knowing we’re going to get it in the eye; keep your lips pursed in exasperation, or else. But even when it is anticipated, there’s often a flinch of surprise. And I suspect there are a lot of porn connoisseurs who find that flinch to be the most exquisite thing of all, a sort of (imagined) answering co-orgasm on the part of the one just lavished so pearlily. The fact that this is another moment of “really giving it to him” (or her) is in no way beside the point, and is decidedly an element in argumentative expository intellectual pornography. Giving to your opponent, fucking him, ass-reaming him in the public eye (borrowing from our ambient cultural homophobia) all play crucially into this. And while there are full further tributaries of this particular swollen river that might be pursued were we to dwell in an only physical (sexual) realm about this stuff, the object here is masturbatory intellectual pornography. The very fact of another face being in the frame to “get it” would seem to put us in the wrong domain (of non-masturbatory pornography), but we can’t forget that the exhibitionist’s cum shot in fap-porn is for us, the viewer(s).[25]

With voyeuristic intellectual pornography we are in slightly stranger territory. We must not forget that the fetishist can make anything (c.f., Rule 34) into erotic material. But intellectual pornography (as also pornography in general) is not merely in the eye or hand of the beholder. That the Victorian era popped boners at the sight of the feet of chairs only means some bastard had enough social pull to get skirts put on the things, but pornography requires malice aforethought and it hardly seems likely some pervo carpenter or furniture architect had that kind of foot fetish. The predilections of the voyeur, in any case, suggest something else as well, to the extent that their preferred activity is to watch sex acts of some sort, so the intellectual voyeur would wish to watch intellectual acts of some sort. If we can even corner some nothing of voyeuristic intellectual porn, then, it must consist in peeking in (like a hidden-cam video) on the creation of a narrative that enables (intellectual) wish fulfillment—(intellectual) pornography being narrative that enables an (intellectual) wish fulfillment. With exhibitionist varieties, this wish fulfillment is the cognitive equivalent of getting off on my face, but here things seem murkier and more nebulous. In particular, it would seem to be getting off on getting away with overlooking some form of intellectual activity by a solitary thinker, ideational in nature, that the thinker doesn’t know is being watched.

So, plagiarizing. No wonder it’s so forbidden amongst young and forming academes, whose raging intellectual passions must be managed like belles and beaus at a Baptist ball, that it comes with as many covert practices of elicit (and overt practices of licit) theft, to say nothing of the handbook of style and citation that is consulted with an eagerness (or at least an attention) we only last practiced on our parents’ copy of The Joy of Sex, all of the furious anality of bibliographic correctness and rectitude, that you’re fucked if you get caught but also the absolutely vertiginous thrill of getting away with it. But perhaps to make the case more exact, it would be plagiarizing from a peer’s rough draft, perhaps from a text entrusted to you (“could you look this over for me”). In terms of quality, stuff stolen might be tacky as home-made j/o, but to plagiarize some cultural monument like an intellectual David or L’Origine du Monde risks so much, however sweet it might be. (It’s rather quaint that, so far in all of this essay, the voyeur has only ever been imputed with watching, but now we see the product of that watching as well, in the excited ejaculations he leaks out in his essay.)[26]

All of this sexualized language is half satire half necessary resort. It’s a result of using “pornography” as an analytical starting point, even as it was framed at the outset as a narrative that enables wish fulfillment. In the essay that this essay spared from digression,[27] I made some effort to hone in on wish fulfillment in terms of desire or eros and not sex per se. At its root—in one sense, literally—one could move away from the (sadomasochistic) metaphor of sex as domination and submission, &c, and the overwhelmingly masculine (phallic, genital) drift that that takes on—however pertinent that might be in a context of solo male masturbation pornography—to consider the metaphor of consumer, and in general the ouroboros-like circle of taking in, digesting, expelling, etc. And interesting things might come of that, but ultimately to offer an ouroboric analysis (as a more generalized analytic for the narrow concern on the sexual, and even narrower concern on the phallic) still proposes a metaphor for the phenomenology of cognition that might occlude as much as it discloses.

Or to put this another way, what on Sod’s green earth is a narrative that enables (intellectual) wish fulfillment anyway? What is some putative eros of cognition? If, on a potentially romantic date, we wish to have a good time during and especially in the end, then in the cognitive domain do we wish to have good idea? As a sort of example, I distinctly remember one friendship that consisted massively in protracted periods of intellectual circle jerking à deux—I even recognized it at the time as masturbatory; I thought of it as such.[28] But that was mutual masturbation, what about solo? Or is it that (like voyeurism) there is an imaginary congress or intercourse that transpires when someone intellectually masturbates in media like writing or sound or image? Have we already slid without warning out of the strictly voyeuristic and into the conspiracy of interdependence that is at stake in this essay? Is there some kind of fantasy of mutuality in all of this, of a (lobe) job well done?

Understood as a narrative that enables (intellectual) wish fulfillment—trying to piece in whatever element as were so obvious in my friendship in college—from the Department of the Obvious comes: friction, or more precisely the frisson that pleasurably arises from friction. Frisson, as a surge of excitement or a shiver, etymologically derives from Latin’s frīgeō, hence also ‘frigid’ and the Anglicism ‘frig’ meaning (at least prior to 1670) “to masturbate”. Thus the proverb: from frigging’s friction, frisson. Or if you prefer, play—though neither in the childish sense typically encountered (i.e., that we must become child-like again) nor even in Schiller’s sophisticated sense of play (which he himself eventually abandoned). One might cite again Kant’s injunction that only things done for their own sake warrant the designation moral, especially if we understand that the moral and the social are in this usage almost indistinguishable. In this sense, only play that was an end to itself would be play—the end here being not to reach the goal of orgasm but the goal of orgasm simply as the accumulated pleasure of play along the way.[29]

No wonder we say “play with ourselves” then. And it was certainly an extended ethos of play that my friend and I rubbed ideas together in. So whatever pornography is, masturbation (whether sexual, intellectual, or otherwise) involves playing with ourselves. Eros, in this view, is simply the anticipation of realization: the rush of orgasm in the physical, a frisson of affect in the emotional, a gleam of enlightenment in the intellectual, a groan of relief in the alimentary. In our whetted whistles, aching muscles, dribbling glans, or bated breath—these are the building signs (some of them) of desire about to be realized (or perhaps dashed). Maybe we feel played with, or simply played, used as someone’s (intellectual, alimentary, sexually) masturbatory plaything.

It seems that the emblematic version of affirming narcissism in masturbatory intellectual pornography, the kind that generates a conspiracy of independence, should be the kind of intellectual production that is inward-directed but acknowledges the viewer, not to shape or change the course of the intellectual play itself but also not to ignore the Other’s presence. It should be something that breaks the fourth wall, that could show the apparatus of its own production (deleted passages, footnotes) without necessarily ruining the illusion; it should look directly into the camera and address you. This is certainly a different feel from the exhibitionistic masturbation in the New Yorker and the like, which with varying degrees of stentorian thunder, academic querulousness, or contrived chumminess, addresses the same public that gordy7162 does in his “good self play session” or the diminutive grower muschi888 offers (for more than eight minutes) with “creamy christmas cum”; which is not to ignore either igazyy’s civic-minded, 6’13” video “handjob lesson for girls”. And it is of course different from voyeuristic masturbatory intellectual pornography, since there the soloist isn’t even aware he’s being watched. Just like the wanksters in general, getting pubic is going public, but the conspiracy of interdependence is not present—is not felt as such—in exhibitionist intellectual masturbation or its pornography.

In the standard distinction, the exhibitionist is epic, the voyeuristic (by implication) the lyrical: the heard versus the overheard. And such rhetoric makes “you” as a form of linguistic gesture into a particular thing. The “you” of the epic is the public, even when the Statesman looks you right in the eye. The “you” of the lyric is to whom the lyric is addressed, which we only voyeuristically overhear and perhaps fantasize we are the one addressed. To use “you” in the sense of you right there, with your eyes on the boy of my text, is rhetorically bad form, especially in satirical or critical writing. There’s little so unconvincing as being harangued for one’s faults in abstract terms, and this lapse, which is both technically ineffective and actually not a good idea, is the exact analog of looking into the camera in typical porn. But masturbation porn, at least, holds the opportunity of this “you” being neither of the epic nor the lyric type—it lacks the “everyone look at me” of the exhibitionist (the important point of that you being the number of hits on the site) or the ultimately reflective or indirect plagiarism of another’s emotional experience (in the lyrical poetry) to gratify our own lyrical longings. In the conspiracy of interdependence this certain kind of (intellectual) pornography can affect, the “you” isn’t invited to be played or played with, but simply to play along. And thus, in a strict sexual sense, we’re invited (perhaps less than induced or compelled) to play with ourselves along with.

All consumption of cultural productions involves not an actual Other but a construction of an Other that I more or less acknowledge the framing of. Thus, this conspiracy of interdependence is not an experience of interdependence per se, but offers a model of a conspiracy of interdependence. This is no different than how intellectual exhibitionism models the experience of (dehumanizing) other-dependency and intellectual voyeurism models the experience of (anti-humanizing) independence, except that its ethos and eros model a humanizing link, the (model of) the experience of the shared glance, the shared intensity of that tent of adolescence where something momentous if awkward ultimately to talk about occurred. And so just as solo male masturbation videos may prove helpful in reducing the undesirable consequences of masturbation being deemed “not good enough”), so also the conspiracy of interdependence offered in solo male intellectual masturbation may create alternatives to intellectual prostitution, intellectual coercion, and intellectual rape.

Endnotes

[1] The film crew has its lights and cameras on the action, photographers may be snapping stills, whole sequences might be shot more than once from different angles for editing purposes later, and technical glitches (light lights burning out or cameras malfunctioning) might intrude on the reverie of the action, &c.

[2] Obviously, masturbation’s auto-erotic focus can only be, both actually and cinematographically, a matter of degree, never absolute—even the viewer, in the castle of his or her home, must take account of the image watched, at least up until that revolutionary moment when the kingdom of attention gets overthrown by an at least temporary usurpation. Nevertheless, the emphasis in pornography dedicated to the depiction of masturbation must ultimately always tend more toward erotic solipsism. To insist on this is not for the sake of some persnickety desire to wrap fap-videos in an undefiled or pure cellophane halo but only to maintain its distinction from other kinds of pornography. After all, we no more call green “blue” just because one can become the other with a greater or lesser increase of spectral frequency. So too here—increase the frequency in a solo masturbation video of outward attention toward the one watched by the one watching, and it becomes more about exhibition than masturbation. That’s all. ¶ It may not be simply due to these technical difficulties of capturing the eros of solo masturbation scenes that make its inclusion less common than other fare in professionally generated pornography. There are, of course, whole DVDs devoted to this sweet science of the fist, and masturbation is nearly always the de rigueur ending to any more-than-solo scene. But it is clearly not an end in itself at that point. The necessity of the cum shot and the likelihood that the whole ethos of pornographic production is not the most encouragingly erotic atmosphere (such that another performer could do the trick at the end rather than the one who must cum) makes self-stimulation the path of least resistance for getting the liquid platinum on whatever proving surface is called for. The compulsion to show the cum shot itself often makes its performance seem almost gratuitous, however welcome. It may also be that, in a professional production, one has any number of actors and to expend a whole portion of footage on just one of them might not be cost effective. (This must be less true, now that one doesn’t actually have to buy film-stock or use up literal inches of video-tape; the amount of media now available on DVDs for scenes is vastly increased from previous media.) In less professional productions of the “dude on the couch” variety, multiple factors can conspire to swerve the solipsistic into the exhibitionistic, whether that is a welcome thing or not. And in home-made j/o, the relentless close-up on the penis begins to accidentally maintain something like an air of solipsism—after all, the penis itself never “acknowledges” that anyone is watching it—but the whole thing itself seems already like an exhibition like some procession of ithyphlloi in the rites of Dionysos, which (again) doesn’t diminish its erotic interest necessarily, but makes it something distinct from the non-exhibitionistic affirming narcissism pursued descriptively in this essay.

[3] C.f. the importance of the term ‘narrative’: “Neither psychiatric case histories nor autobiographies are unmediated sources for the voices of the sexual self. Sexual identities crystallised as patterned narratives. As such, their content and form were of a social rather than of a psychological origin. For the materialisation of sexual identity, a cultural model, a script, was necessary.<href=”#fnr90″> 90 In this respect, the psychiatric case history method and, connected to it, the effects of self-confession and, in Philippe Weber’s words, ‘the drive to narrate’, played a crucial role.<href=”#fnr91″> 91 Hence, the case histories offered a fitting framework to look at and understand one’s self by making sexual desires and experiences an integral part of one’s life history. Sexual identity presumed a reflexive awareness, an ability to interrogate the past from the perspective of the present, and to tell a coherent story about one’s life in the light of what might be anticipated for the future. Above all, the story of one’s life was told as a continuous process with an inner logic leading up to the present situation.” from Oosterhuis, H. (2012). Sexual modernity in the works of Richard von Kraft-Ebbing and Albert Moll. Medical History, 56(2), 133–155, doi 10.1017/mdh.2011.30, retrieved 31 December 2012 from here.

[4] i.e., videos where a guy masturbates to orgasm by himself.

[5] The such videos would also be consumed by gay males—or potentially anyone else—doesn’t undermine the intent of this genre.

[6] The exceptions prove the rule. News anchors and politicians regularly speak directly into the camera, because the conceit precisely is that the viewer is being addressed. An awkward moment of this occurred during the 2012 vice-presidential debate, when after quite a stretch of speaking profiles, Paul Ryan ended his debate with a completely straight-into-the-camera address, which felt to many as exceptionally canned. But this too proves the rule. Such direct address is supposed to be personally addressing the viewer; when instead it seems too rehearsed, too rote, not authentic, then it falls on its face.

[7] The phenomenology of this is an intriguing thing, because the glance of the actor into the lens is never for me. At most, it is for the lens or whoever is standing around during the filming. So that glance, which is adequately described as at no one, is precisely the glance that we make into intimately about us, whether we are glad for that acknowledgment or not. This points to the radical disconnect between the world depicted and the one viewing that world. However much we may want to “blame” the images we see for our physiological and emotional responses to them, that “blaming” is very misdirected. Whatever the intention of the image producers, who no doubt spire to make us hard, to drip, and to helplessly grip ourselves and masturbate to orgasm, and then buy more productions by them (or frequent the Web-site with all its advertising where we found the clip), that intention is radically not for me, however intimately I feel addressed—a sense perhaps all the more made acute by the fact of me being alone and (more or less) naked at the moment of that address. Who else could it be for, if not me?

[8] If not other solo masturbation videos generally.

[9] I have a sneaking suspicion that those who like hidden-cam videos are not the type to claim masturbation isn’t good enough. This is a freakishly excessive generalization of course, but here’s my rationale for it: those who are particularly inclined to want to watch, in a video genre where “over-looking” (like “over-hearing”) has the most extreme emphasis, then this points less to an eros that wants to be in the presence of an actual person and letting her vagina or anus or mouth do the trick and more to one that’s happy (in Chance the Gardener’s words from Being There) “to watch”. When this happens in a homosexual context (i.e., when it is a gay male who is over-looking hidden-cam videos), whether the guy in the stall is gay or straight doesn’t come into the picture particularity, so the “reality” of going out and “getting some” (or that the masturbation being done here and now in light of a hidden- cam video is somehow “not the same” as the real thing) may get effectively ruled out. There may be a “stay-at-home” eros of satisfaction at play in such circumstances. This kind of voyeurism, in other words, serves as a legitimate (that is to say, a satisfying) substitution for “getting some,” and so (in general) may less often run afoul of the “it’s not the same” factor. ¶ Conversely, in the exhibitionism of home-made j/o, the explicit emphasis is on the masturbator: “Look at me getting off!” Aside from the “message” that this sends, that getting off itself is hot (if primarily when it is uploaded on XTube), the “egotism” of the assertion leaves less room for the viewer to insert himself into the picture. If the voyeur gets to be the god-like viewer of everything, with home-made j/o, it is the performer who is on-stage, variously ham-fisted or gorgeous or ridiculous, or thinking he’s in a comedy, when it’s really a tragedy, but it makes the sheer mechanics of the performance into the focus of attention. And in addition to this, while there may be a general “don’t look at the camera” rule, this is because (in produced pornographic settings) it tends to ruin the illusion, i.e., it makes it too obviously a production—the authenticity of the person’s pleasure (despite the cum-shot) gets turned into a performance. In home-made j/o videos, the “authenticity” of the scene is hardly ever in question; in fact, it’s virtually impossible to miss. ¶ In comparison to the “dude on the couch” type of solo masturbation video (described in the post), here I am referring to videos that probably were made on web-cams and, more importantly, have next to zero semblance of “production” about them. There may be dildos involved, bottles, goodness only knows what, and Sod bless them. The emphasis on home-made (perhaps I should say “hand-made”) is paramount. The dominant “note” of such videos are that there is no “consideration” for the viewer, even when there’s all kinds of talk like, “I love showing off my cock to you” and the like. To insist upon this distinction does not involve any a question of some prudish reaction to sluttiness in the performer—goodness knows, yay sluttiness!—but only rather the vast difference between the erotopia of voyeurism as compared to exhibitionism, the latter of which rests on the performer’s assumption of being watched even if that assumption is not acknowledged outright in the video. If the exhibitionist’s cum-shot is “for me,” it’s because someone else gave it to me, rather than that I caught someone at it; in this second case, the cum-shot is “for me,” because I made it for me. I stole it, in a sense—this is precisely part of what makes voyeurism different from watching exhibitionism. In voyeurism, there is some truth to the idea that you don’t exist, that I make you exist; with exhibitionism, you are the one making me exist in your terms, you are the one insisting that I want to see you massage your cock and ejaculate. And as long as you are making me exist in your terms, then what I want gets pushed out of the way—if I masturbate in those circumstances, it’s liable not to be “not good enough” for me, if only because such considerations are largely off the table at that point. Instead, I’m getting off on the adorable mechanism of your audacious self-abuse; I’m judging you, even, on how well you’re doing it, your speed, your enthusiasm, the way your sac crinkles as you’re about to groan and release. Well done! You’ve set up a circumstance where you’ve said, “I’m going to have you watch me cum—so all I can do then (if I don’t just leave) is evaluate your offering in the terms you have framed it in. And after all that Baroque circus, if I’m still not satisfied, there’s another act I can make follow yours, by clicking this link. If I’m the type who’s inclined to think masturbation “isn’t the same,” then all of my mechanical appreciations for your sexual hydraulics have merely left me in a state of exasperated wanting, and I’ll have to repeat my self-humiliation (once the refractory period passes), or I could go out and find someone to bully into fucking (once the refractory period passes).

[10] Jung, CG (1921/1971). Psychological Types (trans RFC Hull) (Collected Works, Volume 6), Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[11] Schwartz P, and Rutter, V (1998). The gender of sexuality: the gender lens. Thousand Oaks, CA. Pine Forge Press

[12] Luckily, this essay focuses only on solo male masturbation, so it is not necessary in the least to try to account for those sorts of desires in pornographic fantasies that some feminists (male and female alike) find either problematic or horrific or both. Here, it is almost impossible to imagination that a viewer would be looking forward to anything other than the dude finally getting his pudendal nerve to the point of no return and showing off accordingly.

[13] Perhaps this is related to the popularity of cat videos. Between cats and dogs, dogs are inherently goofy. They do goofy things, roll in mud, eat poop, hump legs, fall over from tail wagging. By contrast, cats have a reputation for inherent grace and aplomb. So there’s nothing funny about a dog falling off a bed, because a dog would. But let the comforter slip out from beneath a cat, and the look on its face as it disappears over the Niagara falls of the mattress might win $10,000 on America’s Funniest Home Videos. Now, one could ask if an English bulldog fell off a bed in the same way if that too wouldn’t be funny. Not all dogs are Labradors after all; some are Rottweilers. Nevertheless, for those guys who are stoic and can plex up about their dignity and whatnot, then the return to helpless adolescence they experience in the faces of orgasm can be like a window to when they were at least less damaged, if not any less the dick they are now. And maybe that’s also why, ultimately, there are fewer faces seen at orgasm, because as fetching as some might be, others (like that monkey on the video) are just too obtrusive or ridiculous to not “ruin the illusion”. It might be great stuff, exactly, for America’s funniest Home videos, but it’s not what most people are looking for at their point of blissful release. It’s a little too much authenticity—and just as the proponents of “realism” in the theater discovered, sometimes it takes a lot of contrivance to work up an illusion of realism.

[14] Obviously, nothing from the foregoing might not apply to solo female masturbation videos, with all necessary allowances for the plumbing differences and power dynamics arising from patriarchy.

[15] One viewer disagrees. Stating that Lee is not really his type of male to begin with, the greater lapse is that Lee seems to be a performer, albeit a very good one. When I observed the far, far above average amount of non-genital touching Lee treats himself to, this was acknowledged but it still seemed to this other viewer that lee was “holding back” or wasn’t “letting himself go”. Whatever else this might indicate, it rationalizes the assertion that authenticity is in the eye of the beholder.

[16] Part of the complaint against much narcissism, in any case, is that it is well-founded. Just as incest hinges on the terrible bad luck of having been born into the same family with your object of desire, whose fault is it if you’re like the model for Michelangelo’s David and you can also suck your own dick? Calling such a person a narcissist smacks more of sour grapes. It is really only when this Olympian specimen starts acting like he can shit on you because you’re not that a social problem arises.

[17] For sites that list either likes and dislikes for a video or a percentage of yea or nay votes, it is intriguing the wide variability of such voting; that is, some seemingly strapping hyper-studs get inexplicably down-voted while other slobs have near-perfect records. More precisely, to whatever extent my own unexamined preferences virtually vote when I see these different results, I am noting most of all my own preferential disparity for those cases where I would have voted oppositely from the results that have been tallied. There are, of course, a trillion other variables besides, but anyone who perused such vote-polling of porno clips would likely similarly discover those “odd zones” where they would find themselves puzzled by high-voted and low-voted clips.

[18] I hardly know my Egyptian history well enough to state the following with any confidence, but one objection that could be raised to this image of Khepera is that its patriarchal roots may be showing. The oldest myths of origins that Eliade’s (1954) Patterns in Comparative Religion have the source of everything as typically female or sometimes sexually unspecified. These images of females as the All-Creator gradually get denigrated, to the point where, in Hesiod’s Theogony for instance, the female principle is reduced to simply a vagina, a “gap” (“Chaos” in Greek means “gap”) or where, in the book of Genesis, the yet unborn Yahweh goes out of His way to demonstrate that he can induce his own birth from an unnamed, unacknowledged female womb. It is easiest to see this shift from female as All-Creator to merely the (very widespread image of the) Great Goddess, who was a creator only of human babies and crops. Clearly, the valorization of the female was still high at the beginning of settled agricultural civilization. The preeminence of Isis, Ishtar, and Astarte (if they aren’t simply or complexly the same figure) show the great respect still accorded to women. In the defining Egyptian battle between Set and Osiris, it is only Isis who has the (magical) capacity to reassemble her dismembered husband (dismembered literally but also very latterly in that his phallus cannot be recovered), and is able to fashion a golden phallus for herself and immaculately conceive with her dead mate. In another Egyptian mural, Osiris (or Horus, I can’t remember which) sits on a block of meditation, and it is Isis who brings him the fruit of wisdom—you may sense an origin for the Eden story of the Fall here. Again, it is Isis who has access to the divine wisdom that Osiris needs; she is the only one who can provide it. This clearly signals a greater preeminence of power than Osiris. It is, of course, the immaculately conceived child, Horus, who becomes the salvation-figure. Whether through burgeoning patriarchy or simply as a matter of historical course, with Horus, the emphasis is on the Son, but in the divine pair of parents, Isis clearly predominates and embodies a “superior principle” to the male one. This, I suggest, is a trace of the pre-agricultural sensibility of the All-Creator. And since this is early in human history, it does not have the smarmy disingenuousness of Zeus’ later philandering with supposedly mortal women. Subsequent research has shown that all of the “mortal” women Zeus cheated on Hera with, and from which arose heroes, were not mortal women at all, but were local, trial Earth Goddesses (of a pre-agricultural type). The point of making them mortals is to diminish their power and/or to reflect that the Athenian Greeks conquered the worshippers of Io, Europa, Semele, Leda, &c. Zeus, of course, continues to be the best-known Western example of a male deity who spontaneous “births” something, most famously Athena (from his forehead) but also Dionysos as well, who is “sewn in his thigh”—the mythographer resort to a piece of surrealism to try to work-around the absence of a male womb. In this context, Khepera is clearly a (far earlier) do-it-himself type of deity, the mythographer not shirking from the physiological logic of what should probably be involved if a male is going to be a “generator” without a woman. So, as a likely patriarchal feint against a prevailing and older (likely matrifocal) cultural arrangement—one where the needs of males and females alike receive equal social consideration, as opposed to under patriarchy, where society is organized around the needs and values of males—then the “revolution” this portends has a problematic aspect.

[19] There may be a curious kind of complementarity here. Does the exhibitionism (the “outward” orientation) involved home-made j/o porn elicit a (potentially predatory) other-dependency in those who want hotness, while the voyeurism called for by (the “inward” orientation of) affirming narcissism elicits a self-reliance in those who want authenticity? Or, hopefully not to muddle things, if home-made j/o is extraverted and affirming narcissism is introverted, then one might posit extraverted and introverted viewers of either type (and/or whether a matching of orientation to the type of pornography tended more to “get the job done” or not). This is a lot of extra factors, further confused by Jung’s own articulation in Psychological Types that one’s conscious orientation (whether extraverted or introverted) would be complementarily mirrored by the opposite orientation in the Unconscious (i.e., if I tend consciously toward introverted thinking, then I will tend unconsciously toward extraverted feeling; if I tend consciously toward extraverted intuition, then I will tend unconsciously toward introverted sensation, &c) So, whether one were in a mood for introverted or extraverted pornography would be further dependent on whether one were proceeding consciously or comparatively possessed by shadow (the unconscious orientation). Since this may seem hopelessly abstract, here’s some concreteness. There’s a difference in sexual spectating of pornography, when the viewer growls, “Yeah, you little fuck, suck that fat cock. Take it you, whore,” compared to moments when the pure visuality of the porn takes on what might be called a dominating or overwhelming quality. Jung describes introverts and extraverts in terms of object relations. Too briefly, the introvert tries to keep the object at arm’s length; it can have a looming sense of presence that the introvert tends to resist, by trying to put his or her meaning on it, by aestheticizing it (i.e., putting it into a context where it can be analyzed, appreciated, or savored at the introvert’s leisure). The extravert, by contrast, overwhelms the object, projecting his or her contents into it, and then acting as if those qualities were actually present in the object. With this sketchy sketch, it becomes possible to see how an extravert might start growling commands at the computer monitor and how the introvert might tend to seek the voyeur’s position of non-acknowledgment. The extravert wants the pornography to obey (or, less problematically) to “want” to get him off ideally; the introvert wants the pornography to let him do as he pleases and to get on unmolested. In this sense, affirming narcissism not only gives the introvert what he or she wants but also allows the absolute chasm between viewer and the one viewed to be bridged in a way that connects without destroying (ideally) the scene’s eros. Similarly, the enthusiastic exhibitionism of home-made j/o porn can create a circumstance where an extravert getting what he or she wants does not have to arise though a projected sense of other-dependency—and by “extraverts” here I mean “someone who is in the orientation mode that is extraverted for them” (whether that is their conscious or unconscious part). This is to say that. For those caught in the rigors of such other-dependency, where it is the other and only the other who can provide sexual satiation, whether by obeying, whether being a good sport and giving the needy one what she or he needs, or by outright taking it by min force, any circumstance that undermines such other-dependency may be one more step toward reducing or eliminating rape an rape-like sexual behavior in culture.

[20] One would like to have a term to distinguish this middle genre between voyeuristically oriented and exhibitionistically oriented pornography. However, it’s a terminological pickle that gives us a descriptive language where voyeurism and exhibitionism are not etymologically or conceptually opposite. Nor does Kraft-Ebbing help in this case. In theory, the voyeur and the exhibitionist would seem suited for one another, but the voyeur prefers to spectate in secret. Instead, there is the ‘scopophile,’ who doesn’t mind being watched while watching. Certainly in the kind of pornographic setting I’m trying to describe, the viewer will not mind being confirmed as present by the look of the one watched. A voyeur may get glanced at, just as he might make a noise outside the window and the lad moistening his glans inside to pleasure himself can sit up, cock an ear—did he hear something? Perhaps not—and then the threat of discovery passes harmlessly. But in all, the voyeur does not wish to be confirmed s seen. Krafft-Ebing and his immediate predecessor, Albert Moll, both gradually came to realize that the difference between deviant and nondeviant sexuality was largely a matter of degree. In that sense, we may take voyeurism, as an absolute prohibition on discover, as the more exaggerated form of (a more common?) scopophilia that may not wish to be discovered but isn’t so put off if caught out. But to propose that the middle genre would be scopophilistically oriented (an appropriately clunky word to go along with voyeuristically and exhibitionistically oriented) only offers a change on the side of the voyeur. If the voyeur admits of being seen (theoretically a contradiction in type), then exhibitionist must equally submit to the paradox of not paying any important attention to the fact that he’s being seen. Trying to play off of the term “exhibitionist” one might mine out of Latin and craft in English adhibitionism. In the present active of Latin, adhibeō means “(1) I extend, hold out; (2) I apply, employ, adopt; (3) I summon, call upon, invite; and (4) I handle” Perhaps not the best fit, but better than some of the other Latin possibilities. “I handle” has its obviously nice punning aspect, and the summons or invitation, as also a holding out, an extension, needn’t be taken as specifically to anyone. Adhibitionism, then, would be (modifying the definition for “exhibitionism”): “the practice or character trait of inadvertently displaying one’s genitals, nipples, or buttocks in public.” Wherever this gets us, these are only terms that further distinguish the two sides of the equation: the scopophile, as a voyeur who doesn’t want to be seen but doesn’t mind if he is, and the adhibitionist, who doesn’t intend not to be seen but doesn’t mind if he’s not. :: If to share a glance the voyeur must step out into the light, far enough at least so that he knows his presence has been acknowledged by the one watched, then the exhibitionist in kind must also cloak himself in shadow, far enough at least that he wonders if his actions may not have been acknowledged by the one watching.

[21] Meaning actual lesbian pornography and not the kind of pseudo-lesbian stuff popularized in the last spreads of Penthouse or frequently in Hustler. I can imagine, however, young lesbians who were as glad to find such material as I was to find Playgirl (although, of course, at the time there was no readily available hard-core equivalent of Penthouse or Hustler that actually depicted male-on-male pseudo-homosexuality. The best one might hope for was a three-way with two guys in it). Nonetheless, I would expect “legitimate lesbian pornography” to be something that, when oneadvntursboy sees it, writes, “they touch themselves so differently than we touch them.”

[22] For instance: “Echoing the typical nineteenth-century model of the closed energy system, the (male) sexual drive was conceptualised as a powerful physiological force that builds up from inside the body until it is released in orgasm. The human sexual economy was believed to function according to a quantitative model of energy flow in which orgasm and the ‘spending’ of semen meant a loss of energy in other areas of life, and moderate expenditures were seen as most consonant with health and fertility” from Oosterhuis (2012); see endnote 1.

[23] Jung, CG (1981). The development of personality (trans. RFC Hull, G. Adler) (Collected Works, vol. 17). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[24] The work that prompted all of this speculation about the possibility of intellectual pornography, Osborne’s (1993) The Poisoned Embrace, is male-authored.

[25] Rumor has it that some males are multi-orgasmic; most aren’t, or haven’t managed to figure out how. So the equivalent in exhibitionist masturbation is running multiple clips one after another (or replaying the one on a loop). Which is to say that male masturbatory intellectual pornography aspires to the condition of multiple orgasms as well. One might get carried away with this notion and claim that the invention of writing itself was partly motivated by an envy of the female’s ability to cum and re-cum in comparatively short order. Pornography, as arguably the most rigidly formulaic form—the form that has unquestionably the most boring story in the world to tell that we never, ever, ever tire of hearing again with almost no variation whatsoever—thrives utterly on being recorded, set in stone, and being exactly reproducible. However marvelous and plastic the imagination, when we find that good one, that really good one, if it’s recoded then still there later. And within that domain of formulaic reproduction, we can then string together a whole bunch of short forms (short clips) into an epic multiple air-strike of idyllic Illiadic explosions. However, this Sadean extension in number is not necessary. It’s only an inveterate faith that the finale is the thing that makes all the little semi-gasms and near-approaches along the way into also-rans. (Here again is a central reason, I suspect, why males may find masturbation unsatisfying; it’s the journey and the end that matter.) But to be fair, as we coax along from whatever initial state of arousal we might have been in, there gets to be more and more will to get past that point of no return. And that’s reflected in masturbatory intellectual pornography as well. All along the way, the manipulating push and pull of language or meaning peaks and ebbs, and perhaps finally gets us to a point where we want to be finished off. It turns out, however, there needn’t even be a climax in the expository writing, though one may (just as surely as in most Romantic euroamerican symphonies) get a good resounding pounding at the end anyway.

[26] Plagiarizing may only be the second-most obvious variety of voyeuristic intellectual masturbation. The first is you reading this essay. To say this is to come prematurely, but I think you’ll agree in the end.

[27] That essay is now the digression as this one is longer.

[28] Tellingly, we also played a great deal of improvisational music together, but if that involved some kind of mutual friction as well, it was more in the aesthetic or affective domains than the intellectual. So now every time since college whenever I have heard someone say disparagingly that something is intellectually masturbatory, I invariably reply, “What’s wrong with masturbation?” thinking of my friend from college. Nor was this sublimated sexual desire, and not only because he was straight and didn’t want to fuck me. The one evening I was drunk enough to hit on him, it was pure opportunism coming out of me and had nothing to do with a secret crush I’d been nursing for years.

[29] It is only since the 14th century that work has been an antonym of play, so that play now typically has the negative traits associated with those who do not work in its industrious and Protestant (adult white male) sense. Work, as its sense in physics makes clear, is force applied in contrast to labor, which is for women (and by extension, slaves and children). Play in this arrangement becomes uncivilized, a force squandered or misapplied, non-productive (hence also non-reproductive), a waste of time (and seed)—one Germanic etymological root of play is ironically pflegen, “to take care of, cultivate”—uncultivated therefore, and ultimately childish, womanish, or slavish in its subconscious wallowing in pleasure. By contrast, the Romantic’s aversion to work (or, at least, to that certain kind of work hailed as a Kantian perfect duty by the bourgeoisie and other captains of industry) celebrates the civilizing or at least culture-molting benefit of play. From play as an antidote to civilization, it becomes a cure-all for adulthood in general, but civilization fires back, calling such retrogressive desiring infantile, childish, full of nostalgia, or adolescent (by implication masturbatory). The debate finally grinds to a halt on the conundrum of “purposeless action”—which seems to be what play amounts to, action for action’s sake or something like it. As “purposeless” shades into “pointless,” we have the criticism of play mentioned above; and as “purposeless” veers toward “purposive” it’s alexipharmic qualities for healing the deep wound of civilization takes on luster. This problem of what is “purposive” is primarily linguistic; we’re so accustomed to thinking of all action as having means and ends that we imagine means behind purposeless ends. In evolutionary circles, there’s no end of ascribing behaviors as means to ends that no critter would ever give the nod to. Even Kant’s deontological desire to have actions be ends in themselves (it seems) runs into this apparent contradiction, though it’s obvious one should treat the fact as a problem of language not logic. Nonetheless, as soon as people advise being child-like (as a balm for the ills of socialization) it often turns into an imperative for childishness. Thus one has to fire up an Athenian fetish for youth of the smooth male variety now forever carved hard in marble to allow the fine craft of masturbation back into discourse without mentioning it. But we all know for all their ebullience and verve that teenagers re ignorant at best, if not sociopaths, so whatever daemon of longing has them beating off in the dark hardly comes with the markers of the beginning of a desirable public policy. It is important and telling that the adolescent is the site of this, that creature midway between the grotesque innocence of a child and helpless experience of the adult; a liminal monster too ignorant to know better but to knowledgeable to leave well enough alone. For me, this is ultimately where the emphasis on “play” crashes an burns, where child-like gets bound up in a putative innocence that really is willful ignorance. Supposedly the young child can romp and run through a field with an unbidden joy because they simply don’t know better, they’ve never known otherwise. We cannot do that, without lobotomies or a lot of alcohol, but the good news is this isn’t necessary at all—good news because the alternative is impossible. Or to put this all another way, it is already self-deluding to think children’s play is purposeless, is an end unto itself. If theirs is, so is ours; the difference is, we tell ourselves it’s not. The difference is, children can’t tell themselves it’s not. That’s why it is an unenviable ignorance, not a desirable innocence. Children are never, in other words, innocent; they occupy an epistemological realm (to say nothing of a world) that only adults can fantasize might be preferable. It is not that children are unhappy—it is that they are helpless. An adult needs only get a lobotomy if they really wish to return to such a Golden Age, and so far no one that I’ve ever heard of has volunteered. So the child as the basis for play is a dead, dead end. It may be miserable to get old, but no one eschews it for eternal childhood. If you can get into old age with an only blissful senescence, you’re one lucky bastard, as opposed to the horror or terror you hear reported about Alzheimer’s. Here again, it may be worse to be an observer than the observed, but I see no one eagerly looking forward to becoming child-like again with old age. Masturbation is an excellent example of “play” because it is so evidently both “pointless” or “purposive,” depending on how you look at it. If it is escapist, it is also rejuvenating in its own way; if it is galvanizing, it is also exhausting. It’s like the Liar’s Paradox of action: call it purposeless, it seems the point of all points; call it purposeful, and no useful end can be ascribed to it. The seeming paradox, of course, is (as always) a matter of language, not a real contradiction. That masturbation lends itself easily to becoming a Kantian charity shows where the paradox dissolves—it’s the most beneficent act of charity one can do daily, as it were. But the apparent smarminess of this aside, masturbation is simply one kin of play. And more could be said about this, but this is more than enough for now.

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